The Role of Citizen Enforcement
Because government enforcement agencies lack the resources – or sometimes the will – to take on all polluters, Congress empowered citizens to sue violators of federal environmental laws. By bringing such suits on behalf of grassroots organizations, NELC encourages active civic participation in the protection of public health and natural resources. NELC helps the public to shape and uphold our most important environmental laws – serving as a major force in public interest litigation.
The citizen suit provisions of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and more than a dozen other environmental statutes are powerful tools in the fight against illegal pollution. Plaintiffs in citizen suits can ask the court to impose civil penalties for a source’s past violations, payable to the government. They can also request injunctive relief, typically an order from the court requiring a company to take specific actions to correct compliance problems and to avoid future violations. And when settlements occur, funds often go to projects in the affected community.
There are, however, important limitations on direct citizen enforcement. For example, a citizen or non-profit organization seeking to file a lawsuit must first serve the alleged polluter, the EPA, and any relevant state agency with a 60 day notice letter that identifies the alleged violations. Sending the notice letter creates a grace period in which the polluter can come into compliance or the EPA (or state agency) can file its own suit, which may then preclude citizen enforcement. The legal doctrine of standing also limits citizen suits. Put simply, a person or group filing a citizen suit must establish that they have a concrete, personal stake in seeing the violations corrected.
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