In 1972, Congress passed the Federal Water Control Pollution Act, better known as the Clean Water Act. Section 402 of this act created the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program, which requires that any party that discharges or affects the discharge of any pollutant get a permit for that activity. These discharges are technically referred to as “point-sources.” The Clean Water Act also gave the Environmental Protection Agency, or delegated states, the authority to manage this permitting process.
The NPDES permit program requires that a mining company, or other entity, get a permit from state authorities to release or treat wastewater at a mine site. The company then becomes classified as an operator or owner of the mine and is responsible for any water quality violations. These liability provisions allow the EPA to force clean up through administrative or judicial proceedings but can also cause liability problems for Good Samaritan groups who are interested in cleaning up abandoned mines.
The Clean Water Act also allows for third party suits, meaning that citizen’s groups and other non-governmental organizations can file suit in court for alleged water quality violations. Several abandoned mines have been cleaned up across the country because of a third party lawsuit, or the threat of one.
The Clean Water Act – EPA