Stormwater Permits Are Not One Size Fits All

It’s rare for a stormwater lawsuit to result in a court decision since most settle in the early stages, but a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge John C. Coughenour in the Western District of Washington provides useful guidance for determining which of several stormwater permits issued by the Washington Department of Ecology may apply. In the case of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance v. Cruise Terminals of America, decided on November 20, 2015, the answer is more than one permit may be necessary depending on the type of stormwater discharge.

In the case, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, an environmental nonprofit organization, brought a Clean Water Act citizen suit against Cruise Terminals of America (CTA) and its landlord, the Port of Seattle (Port), alleging that they discharged industrial stormwater runoff and other pollutants into Elliott Bay without a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The Court found that a portion of the facility’s stormwater system drained into a municipal separate sewer system and another portion drained into a combined sewer system. CTA argued that it had sufficient coverage for the discharges under its Vessel General Permit (VGP) and the Port’s Phase I Municipal Stormwater Permit.

Please see full Alert below for more information.

 Download PDF

Environmental Law Update

12/10/2015
Stormwater Permits Are Not One Size Fits All
It’s rare for a stormwater lawsuit to result in a court decision since most settle in the early stages,
but a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge John C. Coughenour in the Western District of
Washington provides useful guidance for determining which of several stormwater permits
issued by the Washington Department of Ecology may apply. In the case of Puget Soundkeeper
Alliance v. Cruise Terminals of America1, decided on November 20, 2015, the answer is more
than one permit may be necessary depending on the type of stormwater discharge.

In the case, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, an environmental nonprofit organization, brought a
Clean Water Act citizen suit against Cruise Terminals of America (CTA) and its landlord, the
Port of Seattle (Port), alleging that they discharged industrial stormwater runoff and other
pollutants into Elliott Bay without a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES)
permit. The Court found that a portion of the facility’s stormwater system drained into a
municipal separate sewer system and another portion drained into a combined sewer system.
CTA argued that it had sufficient coverage for the discharges under its Vessel General Permit
(VGP) and the Port’s Phase I Municipal Stormwater Permit.

The Court sided with Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, finding that the Municipal Permit itself may
not be adequate for the cruise terminal’s discharges to the municipal separate sewer system. The
Court’s ruling was supported by the permit language, which states that a separate NPDES permit
is required for facilities that create stormwater discharges associated with industrial activity.
However, the Court held that discharges to the combined sewer system are not considered
discharges to “waters of the state” and do not require an Industrial Stormwater General Permit
(ISGP). Thus, the Court held that no permit is required for discharges to the combined sewer
system.

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance also argued that CTA and the Port were required to seek coverage
under the ISGP, in addition to their coverage under the VGP, for vessel cleaning and
maintenance activities conducted at the facility. The Court found that the VGP covers
discharges incidental to normal vessel operations and coverage under the ISGP is not required
for any incidental discharges directly into Elliott Bay from vessels that have obtained a VGP.
The Court further held that even though the VGP covers all incidental discharges from a vessel,

1 Case No. 2:14-CV-00476.

2
999999.0020/6505055.1
it does not cover incidental discharges from land-based facilities that work on vessels.
Therefore, discharges from a land-based facility are not covered under the VGP. The Court
reasoned that vessels with VGP coverage that dock at the cruise terminal are separate point
sources from the cruise terminal’s stormwater drainage system, which require coverage under
the ISGP. With respect to CTA’s operations at the Port’s facility, the Court ultimately held that
an issue of fact existed as to whether residue from vessel maintenance and cleaning activities fell
on the cruise terminal and denied in part both of the parties’ respective motions. The Court
further held that because the Port and CTA exercised sufficient control over the cruise terminal,
they both may be found liable for unpermitted discharges regardless of who the facility’s
operator is.

Judge Coughenour’s order provides the regulated community with valuable guidance — not all
stormwater discharges should be treated equally. While all incidental discharges from a vessel
are covered under the VGP, incidental discharges from land-based facilities that maintain vessels
require coverage under the ISGP. Additionally, the Municipal Permit does not cover facilities
that create stormwater discharges associated with industrial activity. To confirm that your
facility is in compliance with the Clean Water Act and has sufficient coverage under the
appropriate stormwater permit, it is important to evaluate your facility’s potential point sources,
stormwater discharges, and drainage systems, and examine the language of the various permits
to determine whether more than one may apply.

For more information, please contact the Environmental Practice Group at
Lane Powell: lanepowellpc@lanepowell.com

This is intended to be a source of general information, not an opinion or legal advice on any
specific situation, and does not create an attorney-client relationship with our readers. If you
would like more information regarding whether we may assist you in any particular matter,
please contact one of our lawyers, using care not to provide us any confidential information until
we have notified you in writing that there are no conflicts of interest and that we have agreed to
represent you on the specific matter that is the subject of your inquiry.
Copyright © 2015 Lane Powell PC
Seattle | Portland | Anchorage | Tacoma | London

Download PDF[103KB]
Email
Report

Note close

Firefox recommends the PDF Plugin for Mac OS X for viewing PDF documents in your browser.

We can also show you Legal Updates using the Google Viewer; however, you will need to be logged into Google Docs to view them.

Please choose one of the above to proceed!

LOADING PDF: If there are any problems, click here to download the file.