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Rice v. Harken Exploration Co.

ELR Citation: 31 ELR 20599
Nos. 99-11229, 250 F.3d 264/52 ERC 1321/(5th Cir., 04/25/2001)

The court affirms a district court's grant of summary judgment to an oil company on landowners' claims that the company discharged oil into or upon navigable waters in violation of the Oil Pollution Act (OPA). The landowners claimed that surface water on their property was contaminated in violation of the OPA when the oil company's discharges seeped through the ground into groundwater and, in turn, contaminated several bodies of surface water. The court first holds that the term "navigable waters" in the OPA has the same meaning as it does in the Clean Water Act (CWA), and, based on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 121 S. Ct. 675, 31 ELR 20382 (2001), it appears that a body of water is subject to regulation under the CWA if the body of water is actually navigable or is adjacent to an open body of navigable water. The bodies of water the landowners seek to protect are consistently referred to in the record as intermittent streams that only infrequently contain running water, and there is nothing in the record to prove that these waters are sufficiently linked to an open body of navigable water as to qualify for protection under the OPA. The court next holds that there is no evidence of oil discharge directly into any water on the landowners' property. It would be an unwarranted expansion of the OPA to conclude that a discharge onto dry land, some of which eventually reaches groundwater and some of the latter of which still later may reach navigable waters, is the equivalent of a discharge into or upon the navigable waters. The landowners further claimed that the oil company discharged oil onto land and, thereby, violated the OPA by contaminating groundwater on the landowner's property. The court holds, however, that groundwater is not within the class of waters protected by the CWA, and the landowner failed to provide any reason to construe the term "waters of the United States" more expansively in the OPA than in the CWA. Therefore, subsurface waters are not waters of the United States under the OPA.

Counsel for Plaintiffs
James H. Wood
Wood Law Firm
500 S. Taylor St., Amarillo TX 79101
(806) 372-1727

Counsel for Defendant
Kelli M. Hinson
Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal
200 Crescent Court, Ste. 1500, Dallas TX 75201
(214) 855-3000/3110

Garwood, J. Before Higginbotham and Stewart, JJ.