When clients are threatened with citizen suits – and particularly when the threatened litigation involves a matter where EPA or a state regulatory agency is heavily involved, the clients always want to know why they can’t somehow get rid of the citizen suit, given that EPA is on the case. The answer is that they can – but only in limited circumstances.
The recent decision in Little Hocking Water Association v. DuPont confirmed this answer in the context of RCRA. The Little Hocking Water Association provides public water to certain communities in Ohio, directly across the Ohio River from a DuPont plant which uses , also known as PFOA or C8 – also known as the contaminant du jour. According to the complaint, the Little Hocking wells have among the highest concentrations of C8 of water supply wells anywhere and its customers have among the highest C8 blood levels anywhere. Little Hocking Water Association thus sued DuPont under RCRA’s citizen suit provision, claiming that DuPont’s release of C8 had created an “imminent and substantial endangerment."
Section 7002 of RCRA contains provisions precluding such citizen suits if either EPA or a state “has commenced and is diligently prosecuting” an action under RCRA to abate the endangerment. In the DuPont case, releases of C8 from the DuPont facility had been the subject of at least two administrative orders on consent entered into by DuPont and EPA. However, consent orders aren’t the same as “an action” under § 7002 or § 7003 of RCRA – and they thus do not preclude a citizen suit.
DuPont tried the next best argument – that EPA had primary jurisdiction over the regulation of C8 – and that the existence of EPA’s regulatory authority and the issuance of the consent orders meant that the courts should defer to EPA. DuPont’s argument was that a court could not fashion a remedy in the case without essentially establishing a new cleanup standard for C8 and that doing so is the job of EPA, not the courts.
The Court gave the primary jurisdiction argument short shrift. As the Court noted, using the doctrine of primary jurisdiction in citizen suits would dramatically reduce the scope of such suits. Since Congress provided a citizen suit mechanism – and provided very specific, discrete, circumstances in which citizen suits are precluded – it doesn’t make sense to use primary jurisdiction to establish another defense, particularly where the defense would almost eliminate the remedy.
The bottom line? If you don’t want to face a citizen suit (and you’re not in compliance), get yourself sued by EPA or your state regulatory agency. The mere existence of EPA or state regulation, even if requirements are embodied in a consent order, is not enough.