Steel Company v. Citizens for Better Environment

PETITIONER: Steel Company
RESPONDENT: Citizens for Better Environment
LOCATION: Randon Bragdon's Dental Office

DOCKET NO.: 96-643
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 523 US 83 (1998)
ARGUED: Oct 06, 1997
DECIDED: Mar 04, 1998

David A. Strauss - Argued the cause for the respondent
Irving L. Gornstein - Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of court, supporting the respondent
Sanford M. Stein - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In 1995, Citizens For A Better Environment, a environmental protection organization, filed an enforcement action for relief under the Emergency Planning And Community Right-To-Know Act of 1986's (EPCRA) Citizen-Suit Provision. Citizens alleged that the Chicago Steel And Pickling Company had violated the EPCRA by failing to file timely toxic-and hazardous-chemical storage and emission reports since 1988. Ultimately, Chicago Steel filed all of the overdue forms with the relevant agencies by the time the complaint was acted on. Arguing this fact and that the EPCRA does not allow suit for purely historical violations, Chicago Steel filed a motion to dismiss, contending that Citizens' allegation of untimeliness in filing was not a claim upon which relief could be granted. The District Court agreed. In reversing, the Court of Appeals concluded that the EPCRA authorizes citizen suits for purely past violations.


Does an environmental organization have standing to bring suit against companies that fail to meet the Emergency Planning And Community Right-To-Know Act Of 1986's deadlines for filing toxic-and hazardous-chemical storage and emission reports? Does the EPCRA authorize suits for purely past violations?

Media for Steel Company v. Citizens for Better Environment

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 06, 1997 in Steel Company v. Citizens for Better Environment

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 96-643, Steel Company, also known as Chicago Steel and Pickling Company, v. Citizens for a Better Environment.

Mr. Stein.

Sanford M. Stein:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

This case involves the 60-day notice period in the citizens provision of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, and whether that period is intended to operate as a cure, thereby obviating a citizen's suit, or whether citizens may sue for wholly past violations even after cure.

As found by this Court in Gwaltney v. Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and again in Hallstrom v. Tillamook County, the overriding congressional purpose of environmental citizen provisions is to prompt compliance with environmental laws.

Litigation ought to be used as a last resort, when other methods have failed.

On receiving a 60-day notice under EPCRA, the Steel Company, a small manufacturing company, came into complete compliance, filing the 15 forms required, all within the cure period.

The respondent, Citizens for a Better Environment, sued anyway.

They alleged no current or ongoing violations.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Let me ask you a question, please, if I may, Mr. Stein.

What if it were the EPA that were coming in asking for penalties to be imposed after the fact of a cure, so to speak, after the forms were actually filed, but the EPA then comes in and says, well, they should have been filed on X date and they weren't, and they've now filed them, but we want a penalty for every day of the nonfiling.

Under the statutory scheme, is that permissible?

Sanford M. Stein:

Yes, Justice O'Connor, under our reading of the statute the EPA's enforcement policy comes under section 325 of the statute, a wholly different section than section 326, the citizen provision.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, the citizen's suit provision I suppose is designed to be a sort of private attorneys general approach, and to let citizens pick up the slack if the EPA doesn't do it, and is there any reason why the citizens suit shouldn't have the same authority, then, to come in and seek a penalty for the failure to file on time?

Sanford M. Stein:


Several reasons, as we see it.

First of all, section 326 is far more limited, giving citizens a more limited enforcement and assistance role than the EPA's authority under section 325.

In the citizen provision, a citizen may commence a suit upon the failure to complete or submit the forms.

The Sixth Circuit, in analyzing the same language in the United Musical case, found that it was the failure that Congress was looking for.

EPA's authority is far broader than that.

Also, section 326(c) of the statute specifically points out that citizens are able to invoke the court's jurisdiction in the evidence of an enforcement or an injunctive remedy, and then at that time the court can apply penalties if it has jurisdiction through 326, section 326(c).

In that respect, the citizen provision of EPCRA is very similar to the citizen provision of the Clean Water Act that this Court analyzed in Gwaltney.

In Gwaltney, the Court found many reasons to find that Congress did not expect... intend citizens to sue for wholly past violations, but one of the most convincing was section 505(a) of the Clean Water Act.

There, also, the Court found that before a citizen could invoke the court's jurisdiction it had... there had to be some kind of injunctive or abatement remedy that it was seeking and then, and only then, would the Court be willing to address penalties relative to a citizens' action.

Beyond that, and further answering, we think that if... even if the court below were somehow correct that they can seek wholly past violations, we think it fails the Article III standing test because on that date any injury that would befall a citizen had been fully cured.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

What about the attorneys fees and costs that the claimant might have incurred in investigating the claim and filing it?

Sanford M. Stein:

Justice Kennedy, the costs that they incur investigating are also costs that they cannot recover if the EPA comes in under the... under EPCRA.

They are barred from suing if EPA comes in under the--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

They can recover those costs if the violation is not cured after 60 days and the suit proceeds and they prevail, can they--

Sanford M. Stein:

--If they prevail, then they can assert a likelihood for fees--