We have previously mentioned on this blog that private citizens and groups can have an important role to play in enforcing the Clean Water Act, not only in reporting violations to the Environmental Protection Agency, but also in pursuing what are known as citizen suits. Under the Clean Water Act, private parties may bring actions in federal court against parties who violate the law, including government agencies.
A recent example of a citizen suit is a case initiated by the Chattahoochee River-keeper last summer and ongoing litigation connected to that case. In its complaint last year, the river-keeper accused American Sealcoat Manufacturing of permitting pollution of the river and one of its tributaries and of failing to establish a pollution prevention plan in connection with an Atlanta plant.
The case resulted in a $10 million judgment against American Sealcoat, but the river-keeper also ended up suing M&K Warehouses, the property owner, for allowing the pollution to take place and for continuing pollution of the river. M&K, for its part, has denied responsibility on the grounds that it was American Sealcoat’s duty to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act under an agreement between those parties.
The riverkeeper’s goal in the case is ultimately to get the pollution cleaned up and ensure ongoing compliance. At issue is whether the property owner can be held responsible for site cleanup when the understanding was that the manufacturer was responsible for complying with federal law in its operations.
In this case, it will certainly be interesting to see how things proceed. Federal law does contemplate pursuing property owners for violations of the Clean Water Act, so M&K likely faces an uphill battle in denying liability. The case really needs to be pursued and is a good example of how federal law allows private parties to get involved in ensuring compliance with clean water standards.