The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court decision that dismissed an environmental group’s Clean Water Act citizen suit for lack of standing, thereby reinstating the group’s challenge to a federal wetlands permit for a landfill in southwestern Illinois, near St. Louis. Am. Bottom Conservancy v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs, No. 10-3488 (7th Cir. 6/14/11).
Defendant is the current owner and operator of a landfill in the American Bottom floodplain near Madison, Illinois. The landfill, known as the Milam Recycling and Disposal Facility, is close to a state park containing a large lake. Because the landfill is rapidly filling with waste, defendant applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to build another landfill on 180 acres it owns just north of the current landfill. The tract contains five wetland areas. Defendant proposes to destroy 18.4 acres, or 69 percent, of the 26.8 acres of the tract’s wetlands. The Corps issued a permit to defendant to construct the landfill with the condition that it create double the amount of wetlands it destroys on a nearby tract it also owns. Defendant has also applied for a permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Plaintiffs, whose members apparently include birdwatchers and others who enjoy viewing wildlife in the wild, sued to void the Corps’ permit, alleging that the destruction of wetlands would reduce visible wildlife populations and diminish plaintiffs’ activities. The district court dismissed the complaint, ruling that plaintiffs lacked standing because the alleged injury was insufficient, and plaintiffs appealed. The appeals court disagreed with the lower court, ruling that “denying a person who derives pleasure from watching wildlife of the opportunity to watch it is a sufficient injury to confer standing.” According to the court, plaintiffs “are unlikely to hang around for years waiting for the re-creation of their habitat in a different place.”