United States v. Standard Oil Company

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Standard Oil Company
LOCATION: Jacksonville, Florida

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1965-1967)

CITATION: 384 US 224 (1966)
ARGUED: Jan 25, 1966
DECIDED: May 23, 1966
GRANTED: Oct 11, 1965

Earl B. Hadlow - for the respondent
Nathan Lewin - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Standard Oil of Kentucky was charged with violating the Rivers and Harbors Act after discharging 100-octane aviation gasoline into the St. Johns River. The gasoline was commercially valuable and was discharged into the St. Johns River because a dockside shut-off valve had been accidentally left open. Standard Oil moved for dismissal by arguing that the word “refuse” meant “rejected matter,” which the accidentally discharged gasoline was not. The district court agreed and granted dismissal. The United States appealed directly to the Supreme Court.


Does the Rivers and Harbors Act prohibiting the discharge of “any refuse matter of any kind or description” into navigable waters cover commercially valuable aviation gasoline?

Media for United States v. Standard Oil Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 25, 1966 in United States v. Standard Oil Company

Earl Warren:

Number 291, United States versus Standard Oil Company.

Mr. Lewin.

Nathan Lewin:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This case is here on the Government's direct appeal from the dismissal by a District Court in the Middle District of Florida of a one-count information charging the Standard Oil Company of Kentucky with having caused, suffered and procured the discharge of gasoline into navigable waters in violation of Section 13 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899.

The facts relevant to a disposition of the case appear in a stipulation which is at pages 5 to 7 of the trial -- of the transcript of record and that stipulation was entered into for the purpose of the motion to dismiss made by Standard Oil.

It discloses that in November 1963, after having completed the process of repairing and cleaning a line connecting the company's bulk storage tank, we have certain dock facilities on the same challenged river, the company, the employees, ran aviation gasoline from the tank into the line.

They then accidentally left open the main shut off valve, and 300 gallons of the gasoline spilled from the line on to the docks and into the river.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

May I ask you if the -- if that seemed to have (Inaudible) mandatory sentence?

Nathan Lewin:

I think there's a minimum fine.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Because (Inaudible) shall be fine or fined or (Inaudible) by not less than 30 days within the year

Nathan Lewin:

I --

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Does that means, if it's an offense that the (Inaudible) mandatory?

Nathan Lewin:

That issue of course isn't here right now but I don't think it necessarily means that, Mr. Justice Brennan.

I think -- I think they are -- well, I think that there is a mandatory minimum sentence in terms of a fine, yes.

I don't think that that the -- well, the infringement certainly is the -- to the extent that the statute is mandatory provides either for minimum infringe -- that either for a minimum fine or imprisonment, therefore, if it's a natural person who commits the offense, of course he can be fined and not imprisoned.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:


Nathan Lewin:

Yes, he must be fined.

I think that's true, but that's not involved here.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Whether or not it was accidental as the (Voice Overlap) --

Nathan Lewin:


William J. Brennan, Jr.:

-- to the facts here.

Nathan Lewin:


William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Is that right?

Nathan Lewin:

That's right.

The amount of the spill just to return the facts very briefly was not sufficient to impede navigation or to cause any fire or explosion.

But the matter was reported to the Jacksonville Fire Department and to the coastguard which arrived and dissipated the gasoline into the river.

The St.Johns River is concededly a navigable water and the gasoline, it was concededly valuable and useable before it was unintentionally spilled into the river.

The relevant portion of the governing statute which appears at page 2 of our brief is -- and here, I'm just quoting the relevant portions, makes it an offense to throw, discharge or deposit, or cause, suffer or procured to be thrown, discharged or deposited from the shore, any refuse matter of any kind or description whatever, into any navigable water of the United States.

The District Court dismissed the information on the ground that valuable and useable materials such as the gasoline in this case was not refuse matter within the meaning of Section 13.

Our contention here is that that was error because refuse matter as used in that statute does not make this -- the applicability of the statute turn on how valuable or useless the matter that spills under the river is to its owner but on the effect it has on the water into which it is spilled.