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Atlanta Environmental Law Blog

How does the EPA enforce the Clean Water Act, and how can I help?

Having already looked briefly at the topic of enforcement of the Clean Water Act in our last post, we would like to briefly discuss the issue of how private citizens and organizations may become involved in enforcement of the law.

Private citizens and organizations are able to take legal action for violations of the Clean Water Act standards governing the discharge of liquid waste or sewage or to hold the EPA Administrator accountable for failing to enforce such standards or a specific order. We have previously spoken briefly about the issue of standing in connection with citizen suits, but here we want to mention the issue of notice. 

How does the EPA enforce the Clean Water Act, and how can I help?

The federal Clean Water Act is an important law which establishes the standards that must be followed in discharging pollutants into bodies of water, as well as the standards regulating surface water quality. The federal agency charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act is the Environmental Protection Agency, and the agency has put into place various pollution control programs and established water quality standards for surface water contaminants.

When persons or entities fail to abide by their duties under the Clean Water Act, the EPA is responsible for stepping in and addressing those violations. The manner of enforcement can be either civil or criminal in nature. In civil administrative enforcement, the approach is to bring the offending party into compliance with the law, either by a notice of violation or an order that the individual or entity come into compliance with the law or clean up a site that has been polluted (or pay for cleanup already performed). 

Conservation groups pushing for power company to build cooling tower

Under the federal Clean Water Act, the EPA has the authority to publish regulations which reflect the statute's goals of reinstating and maintaining the integrity of waters. This includes not only preventing pollution, but also ensuring that public facilities don't go unchecked in disturbing the biological integrity of waters.

Last May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put into place new standards which require large power plants to take steps to reduce the destruction of marine life in waters from which they operate. In addition, the rules require that new units at existing facilities which are being built to increase the generating capacity of the facility cut back on the amount of water they draw from rivers for use in cooling water intake. Specifically, the intake flow for these new units is to match the flow level of a closed cycle, recirculation system. Closed-cycle systems are known to be most effective in reducing the destruction of marine life.

Internet communication increasingly impacting toxic tort claims

Toxic tort litigation, as readers may know, can involve a variety of types of injury. Some claims in toxic tort litigation stem from chemical exposure to dangerous pharmaceutical drugs or medical devices. Others involve exposure to toxins in the workplace.

Toxic tort litigation can be based on legal theories of negligence and strict liability. It can also be based on violation of government regulations which require businesses to warn the public of risks regarding their products, to maintain the workplace in a safe condition, and to abide by environmental regulations. In addition to these avenues of litigation, toxic tort claims may also be based on intentional misrepresentation or fraud, such as in instances where the defendant business was aware of the dangerous nature of a substance but marketed a product without in a misleading way. 

Supreme Court to decide on salt water marsh buffer issue

Earlier this week, the state Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving the question of how large salt water marsh buffers must be under state law, and whether they are even required at all. What gave rise to the legal tangle is a Grady County fishing lake project. We’ve previously written about this issue, which involves a state law prescribing a 25-foot buffer zone around certain types of waters statewide. Salt water marshes had, until recently, been required to have such buffers, but the Georgia Environmental Protection Division removed the requirement earlier this year.

Environmentalists reacted negatively to the change in policy on the basis that the thousands of acres of salt water marshland across the state of Georgia would risk increased pollution without the buffers. The Georgia Court of Appeals struck down the Georgia EPD’s directive and reinstated the buffer requirement. That is the decision that is now on appeal to the Supreme Court. 

More on the issue of standing in environmental citizen suits

In our last post, we continued our discussion about new EPA rules pertaining to coal ash emissions, briefly discussing the basic requirements citizens must meet in order to initiate a “citizen suit” to have an environmental regulation enforced. As we noted, these requirements constitute what is called standing.

In addition to the three requirements we mentioned last time, a private citizen hoping to enforce and environmental regulation must also be able to show that his or her injury is within the “zone of interests” which the statute was designed to protect. The idea is to only permit litigation from plaintiffs who are going to further the purposes of the statute. The plaintiff’s interest in filing the suit must, in other words, be reasonably related to the policies which underlie the statute. 

New EPA rule on coal ash to be enforced by states, citizens, P.2

In our previous post, we began discussing a new rule passed by the Environmental Protection Agency which governs coal ash emissions. As we noted, the rules require groundwater monitoring to ensure that coal ash ponds do not accumulate excessively high levels of coal ash. The issue is an important one for the state of Georgia, since there are over twenty coal ash ponds here.

One of the important aspects of the regulation is that it will be states and private citizens who will be responsible for enforcing it rather than the federal government. This involves the issue of standing, which is a requirement for any private party to be able to enforce federal environmental regulations against a party who is bound by those regulations. 

New EPA rules on coal ash to be enforced by states, citizens

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency released new regulations governing the amount of coal ash plants can release in their operations. Coal ash, as some readers know, is a byproduct of coal combustion that can contain various toxic substances, including mercury, lead and arsenic, and it is often found in groundwater.

Under the new federal rule, which is the first ever to deal with coal ash, groundwater monitoring is supposed to be conducted on coal ash ponds on an ongoing basis. Ponds with excessively high levels of coal ash are to be shut down.  Here in Georgia, over twenty such ponds exist. 

Benzene exposure cases a reminder of industry’s potential impact on public health

Industry’s which involve highly toxic chemicals have a huge responsibility, not only with respect to the environment, but also with respect to government regulators and the public. Carelnessness in industry can, of course, result in serious environmental pollution and adverse health effects.

Benzene exposure is one of the possible effects of environmental contamination which can result in particularly serious consequences for exposure victims. Benzene exposure, as some readers may know, increases the risk of cancer and other illnesses among those exposed to it, including leukemia. 

Clean Air Act provides basis for president’s precarious environmental legacy

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of a regulation passed by the Obama administration aimed at reducing toxic emissions from coal-fueled power plants. While the regulation has been hailed as a major achievement for clean air, it has also been attacked by Republicans and industry leaders as more costly to the coal industry than is warranted by the benefits.

The legal issue on appeal concerns the costs of implementing the regulation, and whether or not the Clean Air Act requires that those costs be taken into consideration when passing new regulations. Under the law, regulations are required to be “appropriate and necessary,” but the exact interpretation of this phrase is in dispute. 

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