A U.S. District Court recently considered two questions in response to a citizen suit under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”) requesting injunctive relief while an ongoing state-court proceeding over the remediation was already ongoing: (1) whether the Court could enter injunctive relief even though the state-proceeding was ongoing; and (2) whether the Court should enter injunctive relief in light of the state-proceeding. In the case, LAJIM, LLC, et al. v. General Electric Co., No. 13 CV 50348 (N.D. Ill. October 4, 2016), the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois first held that RCRA “plainly authorizes” injunctive relief in citizen suits, even when a state proceeding is ongoing. But the Court found that it needed additional facts to determine whether the injunctive relief was appropriate in the case before it, and established an action plan to make such a finding.
RCRA regulates the disposal of hazardous waste “from cradle-to-grave,” and allows a private party to bring an action for injunctive relief against any past or present generator or handler of hazardous waste where there is an “imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment.” The instant case involves environmental contamination at Defendant General Electric’s (“GE”) manufacturing plant in Morrison, Illinois. The contamination, namely chlorinated solvents found in degreasers, was detected in the local water supply downgradient of the plant. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (“IEPA”) sued GE in state court and, after many years of litigation, the parties entered into a Consent Order which required GE to conduct certain investigative, reporting, and remedial actions in regard to the contamination. According to the instant Court, much of the investigatory work was performed but the entire state proceeding was “years off schedule” and no remediation had been performed at the site in the thirty years since the contamination was first discovered.
In the instant case, the citizen Plaintiffs filed a RCRA suit in federal court seeking,among other things, a mandatory injunction requiring GE to remediate the now decades-old contamination. GE argued that because a state-court proceeding already existed that covered the same scope of relief sought by the citizen suit, the plaintiffs were not entitled to injunctive relief. The Court quickly determined that a plain reading of RCRA made clear that it could enter injunctive relief in a citizen suit, even when a state proceeding is ongoing. The Court noted that it had already determined in an earlier hearing that the waste presented an “imminent and substantial endangerment to health or environment,” and there was no dispute that GE was a “person” under RCRA that handled or stored hazardous waste. In addition, the State of Illinois was not already prosecuting the case under the same RCRA provision that allowed any person to commence a lawsuit under the statute.
Next, the Court noted that the “real issue” in the case was whether it should grant the requested injunctive relief. To answer this question, the Court said that it was necessary to consider the nature of the relief as well as the appropriateness of the relief sought under the facts of the case. In surveying similar cases in various jurisdictions, the Court noted that while courts allowed RCRA citizen suits to proceed despite parallel state proceedings, court routinely declined to grant injunctive relief when the plaintiffs failed to adequately identify what more they desired by way of remediation. That is, courts would deny requests for injunctive relief when the plaintiffs simply sought nearly identical relied already obtained in the parallel state proceedings.
The Court determined that because GE and IEPA were still arguing over the scope of the state-ordered remediation, the Court was unable to determine whether the scope of the remediation that plaintiffs sought was similar to that ordered by the IEPA. To make this determination, the Court ordered the parties to file a joint status update regarding the Consent Order and scheduled a hearing to make factual findings regarding the extent of the contamination and remediation. The Court also invited the IEPA and Illinois Attorney General to inform the Court of the State’s position on the IEPA’s progress with the Consent Order and view on whether the Court should enter the injunctive relief.
The case is notable for its insight into a court’s discretionary judgment with regard to mandatory injunctive relief in the RCRA context. While a court could grant injunctive relief in a RCRA citizen suit, whether a court should grant the injunction will likely depend on whether the requested relief is substantially different from remediation already required in a state court proceeding. We wrote about a similar decision in which the Third Circuit denied a plaintiff’s claim for injunctive relief under RCRA because the contamination was already being adequately addressed under a Consent Order. Our blog on that decision, Trinity Industries, Inc. v. Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., No. 12-2059 (3rd Cir. Aug. 20, 2013), can be found here.