Energy & Mining International - Fall 2015 - 17


COLUMNS | CLEAN WATER

Fall 2015

+

Clarity or
Confusion?
The new Clean Water Act rules may be muddying the waters for the industry.
BY MICHAEL GIANNOTTO AND MATTHEW BREWER

O

n June 29, the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) and the
Army Corps of Engineers
issued a much-anticipated rule defining "waters of the United
States" (WOTUS) for purposes of the
federal Clean Water Act (CWA).
This rule is important for all domestic industries, including mining and
energy, because it delineates, going
forward, which waters are subject to
regulation by EPA and the Corps. In
particular, whether operators will be
required to obtain permits from EPA,
the Corps and/or states with delegated
CWA-authority to discharge pollutants
into, or to divert or otherwise engage in
fill activities (including construction
activities), with respect to a particular
body of water.
The rule is the culmination of the
agencies' efforts to narrow and clarify
their jurisdiction in the light of two Supreme Court decisions (SWANCC and
Rapanos) that overturned the agencies'
prior assertion of jurisdiction over
certain non-navigable bodies of water.
Although the agencies maintain that
they have accomplished these goals,

many regulated entities and legislators
disagree. So far, more than three dozen
states and industry groups - including
the National Mining Association and
the Utility Water Act Group - have
filed lawsuits to invalidate the rule as
unduly broad and overly stringent, and
members of Congress are attempting
to derail the rule through procedural
maneuvers, the appropriations process
and other legislation. In addition
to these objections, environmental
groups also have brought suit, alleging
the rule is not sufficiently protective of
the nation's waters.
We cannot in a brief article address
all portions of this complex and lengthy
rule. Instead, we focus on two issues of
significant concern to the U.S. mining
industry: (1) whether artificial ponds at
mining sites will be regulated as WOTUS; and (2) the status of ephemeral
and intermittent drainages that often
criss-cross mining properties.

ARTIFICIAL PONDS
Mining facilities utilize an array of
artificial (i.e., made-made) ponds and
impoundments as part of their production and pollution control operations.

These include tailings storage facilities, stormwater collection ponds,
cooling and mine water holding ponds,
waste treatment ponds and heap leach
ponds. Particularly in the western U.S.,
where water is precious, many ponds
never discharge to surface water, but
instead are parts of systems in which
liquids - including wastewaters, mine
water, stormwater, groundwater and
process fluids - are recycled and
reused in closed-loop operations. In
those instances where there is a discharge to surface water, the discharge
is permitted under the CWA.
Except possibly for artificial ponds
that are constructed by impounding
WOTUS, the agencies have never asserted that mining artificial ponds are
subject to regulation under the CWA.
Instead, such ponds have been permitted, if at all, under state laws aimed at
protecting groundwater.
The agencies' rule as proposed in
April 2014 could have been construed
to define some mining artificial ponds
as WOTUS. That would have meant, for
example, that operators must obtain
CWA permits to discharge liquids into
these ponds, and then only after treat-

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Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Energy & Mining International - Fall 2015

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