Modern principles of environmental law mostly arise from federal statutes, such as RCRA, CERCLA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. Agencies often have substantial discretion in rulemaking and enforcement efforts under these laws. However, federal courts also have contributed to the field through their interpretations of statutes and regulations. Below is an outline of key cases in environmental law with links to the full text of virtually every case, provided free by Justia.
Before Congress passed statutes providing specific protections, common-law nuisance doctrines formed the main basis of litigation over environmental concerns. A public nuisance often involves a significant and unreasonable interference with public health and safety.
Madison v. Ducktown Sulphur, Copper & Iron Co. 一 In a case of conflicting rights, when neither party can enjoy their own without in some measure restricting the liberty of the other in the use of property, the law must make the best arrangement that it can between the contending parties, with a view to preserving to each one the largest measure of liberty possible under the circumstances.
Boomer v. Atlantic Cement Co. 一 When there is a large disparity in economic consequences between allowing a nuisance and granting an injunction, a court may grant the injunction conditioned on the payment of permanent damages.
Sayre v. Mayor of Newark 一 The history of sewers shows that from time immemorial the right to connect them with navigable streams has been regarded as part of the jus publicum.
Missouri v. Illinois 一 The Supreme Court should only intervene to enjoin the action of one state at the demand of another state when the case is of serious magnitude, clearly and fully proved. Only such principles should be applied as the Court is prepared to maintain. (This case involved sewage-polluted water.)
Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co. 一 In its capacity of quasi-sovereign, the state has an interest in all the earth and air within its domain, independent of the titles of its citizens. It is fair and reasonable for a state to demand that the air over its territory should not be polluted on a great scale, and that its forests, crops, and orchards should not be destroyed or threatened by the acts of parties beyond its control.
The Rise of Environmental Regulation
Congress devised most of the modern environmental infrastructure in the 1960s and 1970s. Agencies usually create regulations based on these statutes through the informal rulemaking process, known as notice and comment. The Chevron doctrine requires courts to give deference to agencies in most situations when they interpret ambiguous statutes.
American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut 一 The Clean Air Act and the EPA action that the Act authorizes displace any federal common-law right to seek abatement of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants.
Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp. 一 The federal preemption of state regulation of the safety aspects of nuclear energy does not extend to a state-authorized award of punitive damages for conduct related to radiation hazards.
New York v. U.S. 一 While Congress has substantial power under the Constitution to encourage the states to provide for the disposal of the radioactive waste generated within their borders, the Constitution does not confer upon Congress the ability simply to compel the states to do so.
Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. NRDC 一 If a statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to a specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency’s answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute. If Congress has explicitly left a gap for the agency to fill, the regulation is given controlling weight unless it is arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute. If the legislative delegation to an agency is implicit, a court may not substitute its own construction of a statutory provision for a reasonable interpretation by the administrator of an agency.
Sierra Club v. Costle 一 The EPA has discretion to decide whether documents and oral communications after the close of the comment period are of central relevance to the rulemaking and must be placed in the docket.
Burdens and Feasibility
While agencies may receive broad authority to impose environmental regulations, statutes may require them to limit the burdens that result. Meanwhile, disputes may arise over interpretations of “feasibility” in environmental statutes.
Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA 一 Since the Toxic Substances Control Act instructs the EPA to undertake the least burdensome regulation sufficient to regulate the substance at issue, the agency bears a heavier burden when it seeks a partial or total ban of a substance than when it merely seeks to regulate the product.
American Water Works Ass’n v. EPA 一 The Safe Drinking Water Act did not demonstrate a clear congressional intent to require that the EPA set a maximum contaminant level for a contaminant merely because it can be measured at a reasonable cost. In light of the purpose of the Act to promote safe drinking water generally, the EPA's interpretation of the term "feasible" to require a treatment technique instead of an MCL for lead was reasonable.
Waste Management and the RCRA
The main federal law governing the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste is the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The RCRA program provides standards for generators and transporters of hazardous wastes and for operators of treatment, storage, and disposal facilities.
American Mining Congress v. EPA 一 In the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Congress clearly and unambiguously expressed its intent that “solid waste” (and the EPA’s regulatory authority) should be limited to materials that are discarded by being disposed, abandoned, or thrown away. By regulating in-process secondary materials, the EPA acted in contravention of Congress’ intent.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act imposes liability on parties responsible for the presence of hazardous substances at a site. Responsible parties may include not only owners and operators of facilities but also parties that arrange for the disposal of hazardous wastes.
General Electric Co. v. Jackson 一 To the extent that the regime of unilateral administrative orders under CERCLA implicates constitutionally protected property interests by imposing compliance costs and threatening fines and punitive damages, it satisfies due process because UAO recipients may obtain a pre-deprivation hearing by refusing to comply and forcing the EPA to sue in federal court.
New York v. Shore Realty Corp. 一 Congress intended that responsible parties under CERCLA should be held strictly liable, but their liability is not absolute. There are defenses for causation solely by an act of God, an act of war, or acts or omissions of a third party other than an employee or agent of the defendant or one whose act or omission occurred in connection with a contractual relationship with the defendant.
Hercules, Inc. v. EPA 一 When the federal government contracts for the sale or other transfer of real estate that it owns, it must provide notice to the purchaser or transferee of any storage (for one year or more), release, or disposal of hazardous substances on the property. This notice obligation extends to properties contaminated by prior owners.
FMC Corp. v. Dept. of Commerce 一 A corporation will be liable for the environmental violations of another corporation if there is evidence that it exercised substantial control over the other corporation. At a minimum, substantial control requires active involvement in the activities of the other corporation.
U.S. v. Township of Brighton 一 Mere regulation does not suffice to render a government entity liable, but actual operation (or macromanagement) does.
U.S. v. Gurley 一 An individual may not be held liable as an operator under CERCLA unless they had authority to determine whether hazardous wastes would be disposed and to determine the method of disposal, and they actually exercised that authority, either by personally performing the tasks necessary for disposal or by directing others to perform those tasks.
U.S. v. Bestfoods 一 Only when the corporate veil may be pierced may a parent corporation be charged with derivative CERCLA liability for its subsidiary’s actions in operating a polluting facility. However, a corporate parent may be held directly liable in its own right as an operator of its subsidiary’s facility if it actively participated in and exercised control over the operations of the facility.
U.S. v. Aceto Agricultural Chemicals Corp. 一 A defendant may be found to have arranged for the disposal of hazardous substances under CERCLA when they contracted with another entity for the formulation of their hazardous substances into commercial grade pesticides, the generation and disposal of wastes containing the defendant’s hazardous substances was inherent in the formulation process, and the defendant retained ownership of their hazardous substances throughout the formulation process.
U.S. v. Monsanto Co. 一 Off-site waste generators were liable under CERCLA when they shipped hazardous substances to a facility, hazardous substances like those present in the waste of the generators were found at the facility, and there had been a release of hazardous substances at the site.
Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. U.S. 一 An entity may qualify as an arranger under CERCLA when it takes intentional steps to dispose of a hazardous substance. Meanwhile, apportionment of remediation costs is proper when there is a reasonable basis for determining the contribution of each cause to a single harm.
Allocation of CERCLA Liability
CERCLA authorizes contribution claims among parties that are jointly and severally liable for the same response actions or costs. A court may allocate response costs among liable parties by using such equitable factors as the court finds appropriate. Meanwhile, the EPA has broad discretion in apportioning liability for the purposes of consent decrees.
U.S. v. Atlantic Research Corp. 一 Section 107(a) of CERCLA provides potentially responsible parties with a cause of action to recover costs from other potentially responsible parties.
U.S. v. Vertac Chemical Corp. 一 In apportioning joint and several liability for remediation costs, courts often consider the six “Gore factors”: the ability of the parties to demonstrate that their contribution to a discharge, release, or disposal of a hazardous waste can be distinguished; the amount of hazardous waste involved; the degree of toxicity of the hazardous waste; the degree of involvement of the parties in the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, or disposal of the hazardous waste; the degree of care exercised by the parties with respect to the hazardous waste concerned, considering the characteristics of the hazardous waste; and the degree of cooperation by the parties with federal, state, or local officials to prevent harm to public health or the environment.
Akzo Nobel Coatings, Inc. v. Aigner Corp. 一 Courts should use the pro tanto approach for contribution actions under CERCLA, which involves deducting amounts recovered from third parties in settlements from the total cleanup costs and dividing the remaining costs equally between the parties.
U.S. v. Cannons Engineering Corp. 一 Judicial intrusion is unwarranted as long as the data that the EPA uses to apportion liability for the purposes of a consent decree falls along the broad spectrum of plausible approximations, regardless of whether the court would have opted to employ the same data in the same way.
The Clean Air Act establishes measures to control outdoor air pollution. Under this law, the EPA devises national emission standards for sources of air pollutants that pose a serious danger to public health, including greenhouse gases. Among other things, the Clean Air Act authorizes the EPA to establish national ambient air quality standards. Each state must devise regulations, known as state implementation plans, to meet the NAAQS.
Massachusetts v. EPA 一 Since greenhouse gases fit within the definition of “air pollutant” under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the statutory authority to regulate the emission of these gases from new motor vehicles. Also, once the EPA has responded to a petition for rulemaking, its reasons for action or inaction must conform to the authorizing statute.
Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA 一 The EPA exceeded its statutory authority when it interpreted the Clean Air Act to require PSD (Prevention of Significant Deterioration) and Title V permitting for stationary sources based on their greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA may not treat greenhouse gases as a pollutant for the purposes of defining a major emitting facility in the PSD context or a major source in the Title V context. However, the EPA may continue to treat greenhouse gases as a “pollutant subject to regulation under this chapter” for the purposes of requiring BACT (best available control technology) for “anyway” sources.
Lead Industries Ass’n v. EPA 一 The EPA Administrator may not consider economic and technological feasibility in setting air quality standards.
Union Electric Co. v. EPA 一 Since Congress intended that grounds of economic and technological infeasibility should be deemed wholly foreign to EPA consideration of a state implementation plan, a court of appeals reviewing an approved plan cannot set it aside on these grounds, regardless of when they are raised.
Virginia v. EPA 一 Section 110 of the Clean Air Act does not give the EPA the authority to condition approval of a state implementation plan on the state adopting control measures that the EPA has chosen.
Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation v. EPA 一 The Clean Air Act authorizes the EPA to stop the construction of a major pollutant-emitting facility permitted by a state authority when the EPA finds that an authority’s BACT determination was unreasonable.
Environmental Defense v. Duke Energy Corp. 一 The Clean Air Act does not require the EPA to interpret the term “modification” consistently in its PSD regulations and NSPS (New Source Performance Standards) regulations.
Alliance for Clean Coal v. Bayh 一 When a state law attempted to prevent electrical utilities in the state from switching to low-sulfur coal from outside the state, which might be a more efficient compliance option, this amounted to discriminatory state action forbidden by the Commerce Clause.
West Virginia v. EPA 一 Congress did not grant the EPA in Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act the authority to devise emissions caps based on the generation-shifting approach that the EPA took in the Clean Power Plan.
Under the Clean Water Act, pollutants may not be discharged from a point source into navigable waters without a permit. Disputes may arise over the definition of a point source or navigable waters. The EPA also has set wastewater standards under the Clean Water Act and developed national water quality criteria recommendations.
U.S. v. Riverside Bayview Homes, Inc. 一 The Clean Water Act and regulations promulgated under its authority by the Army Corps of Engineers authorize the Corps to require property owners to obtain permits from the Corps before discharging fill material into wetlands adjacent to navigable bodies of water and their tributaries.
Rapanos v. U.S. 一 The phrase “the waters of the United States” includes only relatively permanent, standing, or continuously flowing bodies of water, rather than channels through which water flows intermittently or ephemerally, or channels that periodically provide drainage for rainfall. Moreover, only wetlands with a continuous surface connection to waters of the United States, so that there is no clear demarcation between waters and wetlands, are adjacent to these waters and covered by the Clean Water Act.
Los Angeles County Flood Control Dist. v. NRDC 一 The flow of water from an improved portion of a navigable waterway into an unimproved portion of the same waterway does not qualify as a discharge of a pollutant under the Clean Water Act.
EPA v. National Crushed Stone Ass’n 一 The Federal Water Pollution Control Act does not require the EPA to consider economic capability in granting variances from its uniform BPT (best practicable control technology currently available) regulations.
Under the process provided by the National Environmental Policy Act, federal agencies evaluate the environmental and related social and economic effects of certain proposed actions, such as decisions on permit applications, federal land management, and highway construction.
Strycker’s Bay Neighborhood Council v. Karlen 一 Once an agency has made a decision subject to the procedural requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, the only role for a court is to ensure that the agency has considered the environmental consequences.
Environmental Impact Statements
Under NEPA, development projects that constitute major federal action must assess the impact of a proposed project on the physical, cultural, and human environments that the project affects. Harm does not necessarily need to be prevented, but it must be identified and disclosed.
Kleppe v. Sierra Club 一 The determination of the region, if any, with respect to which a comprehensive statement is necessary requires weighing various factors, such as the extent of the interrelationship among proposed actions and practical considerations of feasibility. Resolving these issues requires a high level of technical expertise and is properly left to the informed discretion of the responsible federal agencies.
Thomas v. Peterson 一 While administrative agencies must be given considerable discretion in defining the scope of environmental impact statements, there are situations in which an agency is required to consider several related actions in a single statement. Not requiring this would permit dividing a project into multiple actions, which have an insignificant environmental impact individually but a substantial impact collectively.
Sierra Club v. Peterson 一 In scrutinizing an agency finding of “no significant impact” on the environment, a court ascertains whether the agency took a hard look at the problem; whether the agency identified the relevant areas of environmental concern; as to the problems studied and identified, whether the agency made a convincing case that the impact was insignificant; and if there was an impact of true significance, whether the agency convincingly established that changes in the project sufficiently reduced it to a minimum.
Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen 一 Since the FMCSA lacks the discretion to prevent the cross-border operations of Mexican motor carriers, neither the National Environmental Policy Act nor the Clean Air Act requires the FMCSA to evaluate the environmental effects of these operations.
Sierra Club v. FERC 一 An environmental impact statement is deficient if it does not contain sufficient discussion of the relevant issues and opposing viewpoints, or if it does not demonstrate reasoned decision-making. The overarching question is whether the deficiencies in an EIS are significant enough to undermine informed public comment and informed decision-making.
Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. NRDC 一 The concept of alternatives must be bounded by some notion of feasibility. Common sense also teaches that the statement of alternatives cannot be found wanting simply because the agency failed to include every alternative device and thought conceivable by the mind of man.
Sierra Club v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 一 A court may be skeptical as to whether the conclusions in an environmental impact statement have a substantial basis in fact if the responsible agency has apparently ignored the conflicting views of other agencies that have pertinent expertise.
Marsh v. Oregon Natural Resources Council 一 An agency must apply a rule of reason and prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement if there remains major federal action to occur, and if the new information will affect the quality of the human environment in a significant manner or to a significant extent not already considered.
The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to ensure that their actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species or cause the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitats of these species.
Thomas v. Peterson 一 Once an agency is aware that an endangered species may be present in the area of its proposed action, it must prepare a biological assessment to determine whether the proposed action is likely to affect the species.
This outline has been compiled by the Justia team for solely educational purposes and should not be treated as an independent source of legal authority or a summary of the current state of the law. Students should use this outline as a supplement rather than a substitute for course-specific outlines.