ILNews

Court agrees with IDEM on 'public water system'

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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The Indiana Department of Environmental Management was correct in interpreting a federal safe drinking water act to mean that a public water system can be composed of separate, unconnected wells serving a larger area together, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today.

In IDEM v. Construction Management Associates L.L.C. and Hilltop Farms, No. 52A02-0711-CV-994, a three-judge panel reversed a Miami Circuit judge's ruling that the state agency had incorrectly determined that separate, unconnected wells constituted a public water system and required the apartment complex construction company to abide by water-testing requirements.

At issue was the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 designed to regulate the nation's public drinking water supply, and specifically Indiana's definition of whether water systems created during development of this apartment complex project fall within the definition of a public water system.

Construction Management Associates started the two-phase project in Miami County in 2000, hiring a drilling company to drill six separate wells to provide for water in each of the proposed six apartment buildings of each phase of Hilltop Farms.

IDEM classified this as a public water system, but the construction company disagreed and so did the trial court. Judge Rosemary Higgins Burke considered each building and well separately as if the buildings weren't part of a phase of a large project, and also reasoned that IDEM had given no fair warning of its "additional standards" requiring wells in a phase of an apartment complex to be considered one public system.

The term "system" is undefined in 327 Indiana Administrative Code 8-2-1(60), and the appellate court agreed with IDEM that the buildings, wells, and equipment owned on a single parcel are part of an orderly arrangement designed to provide drinking water for all tenants in the apartment complex.

"IDEM's interpretation ... is reasonable because it applies the common and ordinary meaning of 'system' and reflects Congress's intent to protect the public health," Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote. "We will not allow a developer to thwart the purpose of the SDWA simply by drilling unconnected wells."

The appellate court also disagreed that any "additional standards" were imposed but declined to go as far as IDEM wanted in finding that ownership, operation, and proximity are standards included in the statute.
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