On February 16, the bill H.R. 1179 was introduced in the House of Representatives. This bill deters the public from filing citizen suits against water polluters – a right provided to them under the Clean Water Act. The citizen suit provision of the Clean Water Act was originally included by Congress because they recognized that government agencies often fail to carry out their enforcement duties. Because of citizen suits, communities and nonprofits across the country have been able to stand up to polluters in their community and protect the public interest. They have played a vital role in protecting lives and addressing pollution.
Kootenai Environmental Alliance has used the citizen suit provision to prevent polluters from contaminating Lake Coeur d’Alene and endangering public health in the greater Coeur d’Alene community. But H.R. 1179 intends to take that right away from us.
The bill says that citizens taking legal action against water polluters for Clean Water Act violations would be forced to pay the defendant’s legal fees if they lose the case for any reason. Because of this, citizens and nonprofit groups would risk financial ruin and be disincentivized to take legal action against polluters. Contrary to the bill’s title, the bill would not discourage “frivolous” lawsuits. Judges already have the power to punish parties that bring truly frivolous lawsuits by making them pay defendant’s legal costs, making the stated intent of the bill redundant. Instead, H.R. 1179 will deter individuals and nonprofit groups from attempting to take legal action against wealthy and powerful polluters.
Losing a citizen suit does not necessarily mean there was no legitimate basis for bringing the legal action. A case can be thrown out of court based on technicalities alone – it does not necessarily mean that illegal pollution did not occur and it does not mean that the action was “frivolous.” By requiring parties to pay defendant’s legal fees when they lose a case for any reason, the bill would punish people trying to take good faith action to stop pollution in their communities.
Lake Coeur d’Alene is threatened by many issues including historic mining pollution pouring 100 million metric tons of toxic heavy metals, now encased in the bottom of the Lake. We have fought cases against commercial and municipal dischargers and won. Without citizen suits, these successes would never have been possible. If H.R. 1179 is passed, bringing legal action against polluters would pose such a huge financial risk that we may not be able stand up for our community as often as we should.
It is essential for your elected representative to reject H.R. 1179 and protect the right for citizens to fight against polluters in their own backyards. Lake Coeur d’Alene and the health of our community depend on it.