When a polluter violates some federal or state environmental laws, citizens can bring suit to request a court order requiring compliance and assessing a penalty. These actions are often referred to as “citizen suits.” If you think a facility is violating the law, the most important action you can take is to report the environmental problem to the appropriate agency. Then, if the agency does not respond to your satisfaction, you may—with the help of a lawyer—be able to use a “citizen suit” provision to force the company to comply. Citizen-suit penalties are paid to the government; citizen-suit provisions do not provide for damages or payments to the citizen enforcer other than reimbursement for attorney fees and expert witness costs.
In an ideal world, the responsible government agency will respond to your complaint by following up with an investigation into the problem. If they send inspectors out and find a violation, it is the agency’s duty to enforce the law. If the agency is unable or unwilling to do so, then you can enforce the law under certain environmental statutes, such as the Clean Water Act (CWA) or the Clean Air Act (CAA).
The next step is to consider calling an attorney if you have not already. From there, the attorney can begin the process of suing to enforce the law if sufficient evidence of a violation exists. Under some laws, the first step is a “Notice of Intent to Sue.” This filing notifies the violator that it is in violation and gives it an opportunity to rectify the problem without penalty. The letter also notifies the government of the problem and sometimes leads an agency to take an enforcement action and in doing so, makes a lawsuit unnecessary. Although the lawsuit is thwarted, you or your organization might get a seat at the table and have input in the agency’s enforcement action. If neither the agency nor the violator resolves the problem within the time provided by the Notice of Intent to Sue, then the attorney can file suit on your behalf in the appropriate court.
Relief in a citizen enforcement suit can take the form of an injunction, civil fines paid to the treasury, and/or recovery of costs and attorney fees. However, the more likely outcome is a negotiated settlement, by the parties, though sometimes with guidance and/or pressure from the court. In that situation, you as the plaintiff would probably not get all the relief sought. You may, however, have the flexibility to craft specific remedies that are more satisfying to you or your organization than those the court may have imposed. In some cases, these remedies can include Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPS) paid for by the polluter to address or mitigate environmental concerns related to the violation. In one case MCE brought against a water park for Clean Water Act violations, the polluter put $200,000 into watershed restoration work that went to local groups to support a stream team, removing invasives, and planting native species.