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Similar to the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act allows the EPA and relevant state agencies to enforce the statute via civil or criminal actions, 42 U.S.C.S. § 6928(a), (d), (g), § 6926(b). The statute also permits citizen suits, 42 U.S.C.S. § 6972(a). A private citizen may sue any person who has contributed or who is contributing to the past or present handling, storage, treatment, transportation, or disposal of any solid or hazardous waste which may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment, § 6972(a)(1)(B). In order to bring such a suit, the suing party must provide ninety-days' notice to the EPA, the relevant state, and the alleged wrongdoer, § 6972(b)(2)(A).
Appellee-Defendant Kentucky Utilities Company ("KU") burned coal to produce energy. It then stored the leftover coal ash in two man-made ponds. Plaintiffs, two environmental conservation groups, filed suit against appellee-defendant, contending that the chemicals in the coal ash were contaminating the surrounding groundwater, which in turn, were contaminating a nearby lake. Plaintiffs alleged that this conduct violated two separate federal statutes: the Clean Water Act ("CWA") and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act ("RCRA"). The district court granted appellee-defendant’s motion to dismiss de novo. The district court rejected plaintiffs’ legal contention that the CWA covered pollution of this sort. Moreover, the district court held that the plaintiffs lacked standing on their RCRA claim because it could not redress a claim that was already being remedied by Kentucky's regulatory agencies. Since it concluded that plaintiffs lacked standing, the district court held that it did not have jurisdiction to hear their claim.
Did the district court correctly dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims under the CWA and the RCRA?
Yes, with respect to the claims under CWA. No, with respect to the claims under the RCRA.
The court affirmed the dismissal of plaintiffs’ claim under the Clean Water Act. According to the court, the CWA did not extend liability to pollution that reached surface waters via groundwater. The court declined to interpret the CWA in a way that would effectively nullify the CCR Rule and large portions of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). However, the court reversed the district court’s decision with respect to plaintiffs’ claims under the RCRA. Because the organizations met the requirements needed to pursue a RCRA citizen suit, and because Burford abstention was inappropriate where Congress had already considered which state actions should preclude federal intervention, the district court erred in holding that it lacked jurisdiction.