Oil Spill MDL Dismisses Environmental Claims
On June 16th, a federal court dismissed certain environmental claims against BP and other companies arising from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The cases were part of the multi-district litigation consolidating oil spill lawsuits in New Orleans, Louisiana. These claims were brought by environmental groups seeking an injunction to prevent BP and others from operating offshore facilities in a manner likely to result in further violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). The court found that, because the well is no longer leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the claimants lacked standing to bring the suit in federal court, and, moreover, that these claims were moot.2
Article III of the U.S. Constitution limits federal courts’ judicial review to actual “cases and controversies,” meaning that, in order for someone to bring a claim in federal court, the person must demonstrate that she has standing to sue. To establish standing, a claimant must show that she has suffered an injury-in-fact that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s action and that a favorable decision by the court will redress her injury. If a person lacks standing, then the federal court cannot hear the case and must dismiss the claim.
Here, the environmental groups were seeking an injunction that would stop BP and other companies “from operating their offshore facility in such manner as will result in further violation” of various laws.3 The difficulty faced by the environmental parties was that an order preventing the companies from engaging in such activities in the Gulf would not redress the environmental harm. To sufficiently redress the alleged injuries, the injunction would have to provide a benefit to the Gulf or reduce the amount of pollutants in the waters. Because the blown-out Macondo well is no longer leaking oil into the Gulf and there is no other similarly situated well that could suffer a similar fate as the Deepwater Horizon, the court determined that the injunction sought by the environmental groups would serve no purpose.
In addition, BP and the Unified Area Command have engaged in clean-up efforts throughout the Gulf in the year following the oil spill. Their actions eliminate the need for judicial intervention into the clean-up absent a claim of deficiency in state and federal remediation efforts, which the environmental groups have not alleged. And furthermore, the court noted that redressing these claims would require the involvement of parties not involved in this lawsuit, namely the various government agencies undertaking the oil spill clean-up. Because their injuries were not redressable by the court, the environmental groups lacked standing.
Along with standing, the environmental groups must also present an actual controversy. Even where a claim may be reviewable at the time the lawsuit is filed, later actions may eliminate the controversy at issue or the party’s legal interest in the litigation. Where that happens, the claim becomes moot. In the current matter, the environmental parties must show that their claim for relief is based on persistent and ongoing violations of the federal environmental laws.4 The well at issue has not discharged oil since July 2010; as such, there are no ongoing environmental violations due to discharging oil. The court found the claims moot because the environmental parties sought to stop discharges that have already ceased.
The court also ruled that the environmental groups could no longer pursue citizen suit actions under the CWA, CERCLA, ESA, and EPCRA because no ongoing violations were occurring; the citizen suit provisions of those statutes do not allow federal courts to hear cases concerning violations that occurred entirely in the past. The court’s dismissal of these environmental claims has no effect on the status of other claims for economic losses filed by businesses in the Gulf, commercial fishermen, and property owners. Nor does this ruling affect trespass and nuisance claims brought by the environmental groups under maritime and state law; the court will address these issues at a later date.
In a related matter, a federal magistrate judge ruled that the Sierra Club could not join a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice against BP and eight other companies for violations of the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act. The lawsuit was filed in December 2010 in the same court as the Oil Spill MDL.5 The Sierra Club had requested to intervene; DOJ argued against the motion on the grounds that allowing other parties to participate would interfere with the United States’ exclusive right to control the prosecution. Sierra Club will be allowed to file a brief with the court making its position known but will not be considered a party in the lawsuit.
1. 2012 J.D. Candidate, Univ. of Mississippi School of Law.
2. In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon, MDL No. 2179, 2011 WL 2448206 (E.D. La. June 16, 2011).
3. Id. at *2.
4. Id. at *10.
5. United States v. BP Exploration & Prod., Inc., No. 2:10-cv-04536-CJB-SS, 2010 WL 5094310 (E.D. La. filed Dec. 15, 2010).
Recommended citation: April Killcreas, Oil Spill MDL Dismisses
Environmental Claims, 31:3 WATER LOG 6 (2011).