People feel very strongly about protecting the environment. Often, it is an average citizen who first becomes aware of a violation of environmental laws. In order to help governmental agencies identify and prosecute violators, citizen suits were created in the 1970s to empower individuals to take action against polluters and other violators. Goldman Law, PC, represents both citizens who are taking action against a polluter and businesses who are facing a citizen suit. Learn more about these actions here.
What Is a Citizen Suit?
The enforcement mechanisms of the environmental statutes in the 1960s were both cumbersome and ineffective. As interest in environmental protection grew, awareness of the lack of adequate enforcement also increased. This awareness led to a significant enhancement of enforcement tools in the 1970s as well as the creation of citizen suits which were intended to be actions by “private attorneys general”—that is, lawsuits that were brought under federal environmental statutes in the public interest by citizens seeking to enforce violations of environmental laws.
The citizen suit was initially launched as part of the Clean Air Act (CAA). Thereafter, similar provisions were included in most new federal environmental statutes or amendments to existing statutes, including the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and many others. The citizen suit sections of the various environmental statutes are virtually identical, being patterned closely after the CAA’s. For the most part, those sections authorize “any person” to commence suit to enforce the requirements of the acts against “any person” alleged to be in violation.
What Is a Plaintiff Entitled to in a Citizen Suit?
The citizen suit provisions allow the violator to be fined a maximum penalty for each day it is in violation. The amounts have increased several times over the years. For instance, the CWA originally provided a maximum penalty of $25,000, which has now increased to $37,500 per day. The monetary exposure for a defendant can quickly add up if the lawsuit involves violations over several years. All fines awarded by the court are payable to the federal treasury rather than the citizen group.
Are Citizen Suits Asserted in Pollution Lawsuits?
Goldman Law, PC represents both plaintiffs and defendants throughout the United States in lawsuits in which citizen suits have been asserted. In addition to “cost-recovery” claims under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) or a state equivalent—for instance, under the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA)—plaintiffs sometimes also assert citizen suits under several federal environmental statutes (e.g. RCRA) as “private attorneys general,” which entitles them to statutory penalties, injunctive relief, and attorney’s fees.
Understanding the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
RCRA is essentially a codification of common law public nuisance remedies and, therefore, incorporates the legal theories used for centuries to assess liability for creating a public nuisance (including the theories of tort, negligence, and strict liability) and to determine the appropriate remedies.
RCRA contains two citizen suit provisions which permit a party to file suit on behalf of the federal government as “private attorneys general” in order to enforce its provisions. Section 6972(a)(1)(A) provides that any person may commence a civil action against any person who is alleged to be in violation of any permit, standard, regulation, condition, requirement, prohibition, or order. Section 6972(a)(1)(B) allows an action against any person who has contributed or is contributing to the past or present handling, storage, treatment, transportation, or disposal of any solid or hazardous waste which may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment.
The continued presence of waste previously disposed of is actionable if it presents an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment. Typically, contaminants present above state action levels meet this standard and therefore this claim is an option in pollution lawsuits.
Call Goldman Law, PC to Learn More
Citizen suits are complicated. Whether you are seeking to charge a polluter or defending against a charge, don’t go it alone.
Do you have questions? You can get our FREE ebook, Environmental Litigation: What Every Attorney and Environmental Professional Needs to Know, just by providing your name and email address. We promise your information won’t be shared with third persons. And if you’d like to speak with me about your case, I welcome your phone call at 972-850-8490. I look forward to speaking with you.