Clean Water Act: Citizens Can Sue Violators, U.S. Supreme Court Rules
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that citizens can sue alleged polluters under the Clean Water Act. The high court's January decision in a case from South Carolina was a significant victory for environmentalists, who argue that the government sometimes does not adequately enforce the Clean Water Act and other environmental protection laws.
On a 7-2 vote, court ruled that Friends of the Earth (FOE) had standing to sue Laidlaw Environmental Services over the company's violation of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit that allowed Laidlaw to discharge treated wastewater into the North Tyger River. The court also ruled that the lawsuit was not made moot by a settlement between Laidlaw and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Finally, the court backed a civil penalty of $405,800 against Laidlaw.
Laidlaw — which has since changed its name to Safety-Kleen (Roebuck), Inc. — purchased a hazardous waste incinerator in Roebuck, South Carolina, in 1986. It soon received the NPDES permit from the state. However, Laidlaw repeatedly violated permit conditions, especially limits on mercury discharges.
In April 1992, Friends of the Earth notified Laidlaw that the environmental group intended to file a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. §1251 et seq. In an attempt to head off the lawsuit, Laidlaw invited the state to file a suit. Laidlaw drafted the lawsuit and even paid the filing fee. Just before the deadline for FOE to file its lawsuit, Laidlaw and the state agreed to a settlement that required Laidlaw to pay a $100,000 civil penalty and make "every effort" to comply with the permit.
Friends of the Earth sued anyway, and the federal District Court ruled for the environmental group in January 1997. The court ruled that because the state's action against Laidlaw had not been "diligently prosecuted," FOE could proceed with its complaint. The court found that Laidlaw had violated the mercury discharge limit 489 times, with the final violations occurring in 1995. The court also determined Laidlaw had violated monitoring and reporting requirements hundreds of times. The court fined Laidlaw $405,800.
Friends of the Earth appealed the penalty as inadequate, while Laidlaw cross-appealed, arguing that FOE lacked standing to sue and that the state had diligently prosecuted the matter. The Fourth District Court of Appeals reversed the District Court. The appellate panel ruled that the case was moot because Laidlaw no longer violated the permit, and concluded that civil penalties were inappropriate because they did not redress any injury FOE suffered.
The Supreme Court reversed the Fourth District panel. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said FOE had standing to sue because Laidlaw pollution had affected members' recreational, aesthetic and economic interests. Thus, FOE could seek civil penalties that would discourage further pollution.
"Here, the civil penalties sought by FOE carried with them a deterrent effect that made it likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the penalties would redress FOE's injuries by abating current violations and preventing future ones — as the District Court reasonably found when it assessed a penalty of $405,800," Ginsburg wrote.
Furthermore, Ginsburg wrote, Laidlaw's voluntary compliance with the NPDES permit did not make the case moot. "It is well settled that ‘a defendant's voluntary cessation of a challenged practice does not deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice,'" wrote Ginsburg, citing City of Mesquite v. Aladdin's Castle, Inc., 455 U.S. 283 (1982).
In a dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Antonin Scalia said FOE did not prove it had been harmed. Scalia made clear he thought the court was giving environmentalists too much authority, and he argued that the Clean Water Act's provisions allowing citizens to sue for civil penalties were unconstitutional.
"The undesirable and unconstitutional consequence of today's decision is to place the immense power of suing to enforce the public laws in private hands," Scalia wrote.
The Supreme Court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.
The case is Friends of the Earth, Incorporated v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc., No. 98-822, 00 C.D.O.S. 289, Decided January 12, 2000.