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Court To Consider Pollution Case

March 1, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today agreed to use a clean-water dispute from South Carolina to clarify how far private citizens can pursue lawsuits against polluters.

The court’s eventual decision, expected sometime in 2000, is likely to carry great practical importance for environmentalists and the companies they sue over violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

Three environmental groups _ Friends of the Earth, Citizens Local Environmental Action Network and the Sierra Club _ sued Laidlaw Environmental Services in 1992 over its operation of a hazardous waste incinerator in Roebuck, S.C., that discharged wastewater into North Tyger River.

The facility was closed in 1998 and is not currently in operation.

By the time a federal trial judge ruled on the lawsuit in 1997, Laidlaw was found to have come into compliance with the Clean Water Act. So the judge ruled that the environmental groups were not entitled to any injunctive relief. Laidlaw was ordered, however, to pay $405,800 in civil penalties for past violations.

The environmental groups appealed, contending that the penalties were inadequate. Laidlaw also appealed, arguing that the groups could not pursue any litigation over civil penalties once injunctive relief was denied.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last July that the judge’s denial of injunctive relief had made the whole case moot _ thwarting any further attempts to get the civil penalties increased. The $405,800 award was left intact, however.

The appeals court relied heavily on a decision in which the Supreme Court last year killed a citizens group’s lawsuit against a Chicago steel company that missed a federal deadline for filing reports on its use of hazardous chemicals.

In the appeal acted on today, lawyers for the three environmental groups argued that the appeals court misapplied the 1998 Supreme Court ruling.

The appeal said the 4th Circuit court’s rationale could thwart the imposition of civil penalties altogether in the many cases that drag on so long that polluters comply with the law by the time a judge rules.

The case is Friends of the Earth vs. Laidlaw Environmental Services, 98-822.

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