Poles Left Standing: Ninth Circuit Rejects Claim That Utility Poles Must Be Regulated Under the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
In an important victory for users of treated wooden poles, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit last week concluded that wooden utility poles are neither a "point source" subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act ("CWA") nor a "solid waste" subject to regulation under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act ("RCRA"). The decision is an important landmark for electric utilities, telecommunications carriers, and other companies using treated wooden poles. If the court had reached the opposite result, these industries could have been subject to burdensome new regulation under both the CWA and RCRA.
The Ninth Circuit's decision, Ecological Rights Foundation v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., rejects a lawsuit brought under the citizen suit provisions of the CWA and RCRA by a California environmental organization. The environmental plaintiff claimed that PCP and other wood treating chemicals are washed into the environment by rainwater, resulting in a "discharge" of a pollutant requiring the owner of wood poles to obtain a NPDES permit under the CWA. Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision rejecting a similar claim with respect to logging roads, the Ninth Circuit rejected this claim, as well. The court found that wooden poles are not a "point source" subject to CWA regulation. In particular, under EPA's approach to regulation of stormwater discharges, governed by 1987 amendments to the CWA, no NPDES permit is required because wood poles are not "associated with industrial activity," as would be the case at an industrial plant or storage area where rainwater is captured and channeled.