Posted on April 3, 2009 by Jarred O. Taylor, II
Citizen suits in the environmental world are those filed in federal court under the authority Congress gave to a citizen to seek enforcement of the environmental laws, typically when the citizen believes the regulatory authority (i.e. EPA or a state agency) is not doing its job or has missed a violation.
Entire articles have been written about the efficacy of such suits, and their appropriateness in the face of an already-initiated governmental enforcement or cleanup action. Recent cases suggest the courts want to encourage, and not discourage, such filings, although one recent US Supreme Court decision found the citizens lacked standing because there was not an actual, live, dispute. Summers v. Earth Island Institute, __U.S.__(No. 07-463, March 3, 2009) (see ACOEL blog entry of March 4, 2009).
Some, therefore, found it surprising when, on March 6, 2009, President Obama’s Justice Department filed a motion seeking the dismissal of a citizen suit filed against the United States over alleged mining contamination in a national forest. What some found even more surprising was this was not the DOJ’s first shot at the citizen group, the DOJ having attempted to get the case dismissed one time before, under Pres. Bush’s DOJ.
In Washington Environmental Council v. Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest (W.D. Wash, CV No. 06-1249), the United States had argued in 2007 that it was already taking action at the site under Superfund, and argued that the citizen suit was a barred challenge to the United States’ “removal or remedial action” under Section 113(h) of Superfund. The federal district court denied this first motion to dismiss on the basis that the US Forest Service was just at the inspection and investigation stage, and had not actually selected a remedy.
On March 6, 2009, with the citizen suit still pending, DOJ filed another motion to dismiss, arguing that the US Forest Service had advanced its Superfund work so that all of its inspections were complete and it was beginning to perform the engineering evaluation for remediation, and to calculate those costs. DOJ argued in its motion that such activity, even though before any cleanup had been actually conducted, does meet the Section 113(h) criteria barring such challenges, and that the citizen suit should be dismissed. The author is unaware of a court ruling on this recent motion.
One hopes the administration’s position in this case (whether right or wrong) would be the same if the subject of the citizen group’s complaint was a non government organization or other private company, and not the United States. Comments?