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United States v. Needham

ELR Citation: 34 ELR 20009
Nos. No. 02-30217, (5th Cir., 12/16/2003)

The court holds that because oil discharged from a facility spilled into waters adjacent to an open body of navigable water, it contaminated waters regulated by the federal government under the Oil Pollution Act (OPA), thereby triggering federal regulatory jurisdiction pursuant to that Act. The bankruptcy court, in the first instance, and the district court on appeal, erroneously held that the owners of the facility were not liable to the United States for the cleanup costs because the waters in question were not navigable and, thus, were beyond the reach of the OPA. The Clean Water Act and the OPA are not so broad as to permit the federal government to impose regulations over "tributaries" that are neither themselves navigable nor truly adjacent to navigable waters. Nevertheless, in this case the oil spilled into a bayou that flows directly into a canal. This canal, which is an inland waterway that supports commerce, is unobstructed, and is traversed on a consistent basis, is navigable-in-fact. The oil spill, therefore, implicated navigable waters and triggered federal regulatory jurisdiction under the OPA.

[Counsel not available at this printing.]