Making Polluters Pay

March 14, 2018. To follow on the last blogpost, some background on a  polluter’s legal responsibility to pay for environmental damage and limits on the state’s ability to use penalties to fund environmental protection programs.

Scope:  The issue has come up in response to GenX , but this blogpost should not be taken as legal advice with respect to pending or future  GenX litigation.  The blogpost also focuses on what the state can require a polluter to pay under its authority to enforce federal or state environmental laws.  A person harmed by pollution  (such as groundwater contamination) can also sue and ask a court to order compensation for individual injury or property damage. Different legal principles govern those personal injury/property damage cases.

The Prompt. In January, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed House Bill 189  to legislatively address  GenX and other emerging contaminants. In addition to creating a number of studies, the bill proposed to appropriate $2.4 million to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for wastewater permitting, water quality monitoring, and analysis of emerging contaminants.  Senate President pro Tem Phil Berger had a very negative reaction to the proposed  appropriations:

“[H 189] leaves North Carolina taxpayers holding the bag for expenditures that should be paid for by the company responsible for the pollution, fails to give [the Department of Environmental Quality] authority to do anything they can’t already do and authorizes the purchase of expensive equipment that the state can already access for free.”

The Senate refused to consider the House bill in January, but adopted its own version of H 189 when the legislature reconvened briefly in February. The Senate version included new appropriations, but funds directed to DEQ could only be used for purposes identified in the bill (such as a historical study of the state’s wastewater permitting program). The Senate bill did not allow DEQ to use any of the appropriated  funds for wastewater permitting, compliance inspections, water quality monitoring, or purchase of analytical equipment, suggesting that Senator Berger has held to the  position that the polluter should cover most of the cost of GenX response.  Note: The House and Senate versions of H189 have not been reconciled so no GenX legislation has passed and it is unlikely the legislature will return to the issue again before the next regularly scheduled legislative session in May.

Can the state require a violator  to contribute to the cost of environmental permitting, water quality monitoring, inspections of permitted facilities, or other regular program activities?

No.  The N.C. Constitution (Article 9, Sec. 7) requires that the proceeds of   “all penalties and forfeitures and of all fines collected in the several counties for any breach of the penal laws of the State” must be used exclusively to  support the public school system. In the 1990s, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that all state civil penalties –including those for environmental violations —  must go to the “school fund”.  In 2005, the court ruled that environmental agencies cannot enter into a settlement agreement that allows a violator to put funds toward a third-party project to conserve natural resources or improve the environment in place of a penalty.  In the court’s eyes, the payment continues to be a “penalty” assessed in response to a specific violation of environmental rules and the money must go the school fund. (The 2005 case on funding of an “environmental enhancement project” as a substitute for a civil penalty is N.C. School Boards Association v. Moore.)

Although the court has not ruled on this specific question,  the same principle seems to apply to requiring a violator to provide funds to support state environmental program activities in place of or in addition to a civil penalty.  Once a payment becomes associated with a specific violation,  the N.C. Supreme Court is likely to view it as  a “penalty” for purposes of the N.C. Constitution.  In that case, the money  would have to go to the public schools rather than to environmental protection programs.

Permit fees can be used to support basic permitting, enforcement, and monitoring activities and many state environmental permitting programs have graduated permit fee schedules based on the type and size of the permitted facility. Making compliance history another factor in setting permit application/renewal fees probably would not conflict with N.C. Constitution — although it also may not generate significant additional revenue for environmental programs.

Can the state require the company responsible for pollution to pay anything other than a civil penalty? 

Yes, but generally only the cost of  response to the specific pollution incident and the environmental harm that it caused:

  1. Natural resource damages. Several state and federal laws allow the state to recover for injury to the state’s natural resources. The compensation goes to the state as trustee for natural resources — such as fish and wildlife  — held by the state for the use of all of its citizens.  A  patchwork of laws allow recovery of natural resource damage; some  apply only to particular kinds of environmental harm (fish kills, for example) or specific types of pollution events (such as an oil spill). The Clean Water Act does not include a  specific provision for natural resource damage caused by a wastewater discharge that does not involve oil or a “hazardous substance”;  most chemicals found in a wastewater discharge, including GenX,  are not EPA-listed hazardous substances.  The federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) allows state natural resource damage claims for harm specifically caused by a  spill of oil or an EPA-listed “hazardous substance”. N.C.  law has a somewhat broader provision that allows  DEQ  to require compensation for natural resource damage caused by any release of pollutants that results in a  fish kill or injury to wildlife.  In  those cases, the  state recovers only  the value of the natural resource lost — not program costs. Under the state law allowing recovery of damages for injury to fish and wildlife,  the amount of damages is based on a Wildlife Resources Commission estimate of the value of the lost fish or wildlife. [N.C. General Statute 143-214.3(7).]
  2. Cost of State response to a spill of oil or an EPA-listed hazardous substance.   N.C. General Statute 143-215.88 allows the state to recover the cost of state response to a spill. An example of state costs would be initial emergency response, such as putting booms in the water to control an oil spill. These are usually costs the state incurs early in spill response when the source of the spill may not be known. Later, the polluter would be expected to carry out the response.
  3. Investigative costs.  Under several state laws, DEQ can recover the costs of investigating a pollution incident. These laws only apply to costs associated with the specific event and not the costs of maintaining DEQ’s ongoing inspection/compliance/pollution monitoring programs.
  4. Measures to eliminate a  threat to public health and safety;  clean-up groundwater and soil contamination; or restore other kinds of environmental damage (such as wetlands disturbance) caused by a violation. Most environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act,  make restoration of environmental harm the responsibility of the violator. Both EPA and the state water quality programs have the authority to seek a court order to stop an unlawful discharge and require the violator to take steps to prevent future unlawful discharges. Under state law, DEQ routinely requires violators to cleanup  groundwater and soil contamination caused by a pollution incident. These expenditures are different from the kind of environmental enhancement or conservation projects struck down in N.C. School Boards Association v. Moore because they are limited to addressing the direct impact of a  specific violation.

What does this mean for funding a better state response to GenX and other emerging contaminants?

The N.C. Constitution does not allow DEQ to use the proceeds of any penalty for violation of environmental laws and rules — or anything that looks like a substitute for a penalty — to support environmental protection programs.  Past N.C. Supreme Court decisions suggest the court would view assessment of environmental program costs against a violator as another form of  penalty that must also go to the public schools. Given the constitutional provision, funds to strengthen the state’s response to emerging contaminants like GenX will largely have to come from state appropriations, permit fees and EPA grants.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *