The Jan. 16 editorial "A Win for the Environment" incorrectly stated that the district court in Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw Environmental Services issued an injunction to force Laidlaw into compliance with its permit. In fact, the court declined to issue an injunction, because Laidlaw brought its facility into compliance after the lawsuit was filed. (Published 01/20/2000)
THE SUPREME Court gave a welcome lift to enforcement of environmental law last week in deciding the case of Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw Environmental Services. Over the past several years, the court has sought to restrict so-called citizen suits -- actions brought by individuals alleging noncompliance with federal pollution laws. The case this year seemed a likely vehicle for the court to further restrict who is entitled to sue and when -- who has standing. The surprising result, however, was a strong 7 to 2 decision that tacks hard the other way. The opinion -- written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and signed, significantly, by the court's conservative chief justice -- sends a powerful message that citizens affected by pollution can go to court to stop that pollution and that, once there, they don't lose their standing easily.
The case dealt with a wastewater treatment plant that had been dumping pollutants into the North Tyger River in South Carolina. While there was no doubt that Laidlaw, the company that owned the plant, was violating federal law, there also wasn't much evidence that any individual had been harmed by the pollution. Rather, the citizens on whose behalf the case was brought contended that they were injured because they didn't use the river for fishing or other recreation as a result of their belief that it was polluted. The first question was whether such an allegation is sufficient to support standing to sue, or whether a plaintiff needs a more direct injury.
The second and more difficult question is whether a citizen plaintiff's standing persists even after the facility has been forced into compliance. The citizen-suit provision of the Clean Water Act permits plaintiffs to seek a civil fine that is paid to the federal Treasury. Yet the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit held that once the district court issued an injunction and the facility was brought into compliance, the plaintiffs had no standing to seek such a fine. Since they were, the court of appeals held, merely asking for money for the feds, there was no actual controversy between the parties to the litigation anymore -- only one between Laidlaw and the government.
The Supreme Court, however, disagreed. Brushing aside recent case law, Justice Ginsburg wrote that the fear of pollution that led nearby residents to limit their recreational use of the river gave them the right to sue. Nor, the court held, did these citizens have to give up the case once the question of civil fines to the government became the only live matter. Such fines, Justice Ginsburg wrote, have a "deterrent effect," making it less likely that the citizens would be harmed by pollution in the future. The ruling clarifies an important principle: Communities affected by polluters can go to court to seek relief and enforce environmental laws.