Weinberger v. Romero-Barcelo

PETITIONER:Caspar W. Weinberger, Secretary of Defense
RESPONDENT:Carlos Romero-Barcelo, Radamees Tirado Guevara, Environmental Quality Board
LOCATION:José Aponte de la Torre Airport, formerly Roosevelt Roads Naval Station

DOCKET NO.: 80-1990
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

CITATION: 456 US 305 (1982)
ARGUED: Feb 23, 1982
DECIDED: Apr 27, 1982
GRANTED: Oct 05, 1981

Elinor Hadley Stillman – for the petitioners
John A. Hodges – for the respondents

Facts of the case

The island of Vieques lay six miles off the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico. Vieques’ population of 8,000 mostly lived in two coastal towns and in a rural area outside of those two towns. Of a total area of approximately 33,000 acres, the United States Navy owned 25,231.72 acres, slightly more than 76% of the island.

The Navy’s installations on the eastern part of Vieques were part of a large military complex known as the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility, headquartered at Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. This consisted of four firing ranges; the outer range was a large area of ocean thirty-five miles to the north and twenty miles to the south of Vieques. Two separate inland areas were used for artillery training, strafing, air-to-ground bombing, and simulating close air support; no targets existed in the area between the eastern border of these areas and Punta Este, the easternmost point of Vieques. During air-to-ground training, however, pilots sometimes accidentally discharged ordnance into the navigable waters around Viques.

Carlos Romero-Barceleo was the governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Along with Radamees Tirado Guevara, the mayor of Vieques, and Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board, Romero-Barceleo sought to enjoin the United States Navy from using any part of its lands in Vieques, or in its surrounding waters, to carry out naval training operations. Plaintiffs alleged harm to all residents of Vieques and violations of numerous environmental laws, including the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA). Under the FWPCA, the addition of any pollutant from any point source into the navigable waters of the United States required a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The district court acknowledged that the release of ordnance into navigable waters was a discharge of pollutants, but it refused to enjoin Navy operations, instead ordering the Navy to apply for an NPDES permit. The United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit, reversed. It ordered the Navy to cease operations until it obtained an NPDES permit. It held that the Navy has an absolute statutory obligation to stop any discharges of pollutants until it obtains a permit despite the importance of its operations to the public good.


Did the Federal Water Pollution Control Act require the district court to issue an injunction prohibiting the United States Navy from discharging ordnance into the water surrounding Vieques Island?

Media for Weinberger v. Romero-Barcelo

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – February 23, 1982 in Weinberger v. Romero-Barcelo

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 27, 1982 in Weinberger v. Romero-Barcelo

Byron R. White:

The other case I have is 80 — No. 80-1990, Weinberger against Romero-Barcelo which is here from the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

That Court held that whenever it is shown that a person is polluting coastal waters, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act requires the District Court enter an injunction and removes any discretion that the District Court might otherwise have to deny an injunction pending an application for a permit under the Act.

We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

For the reasons we stated in an opinion on file, we hold that the Water Control Act does not completely foreclose the District Court from taking equitable considerations into account and from denying injunctive relief pending action on an application for a permit which if issued would allow the pending discharges to continue.

Justice Powell has filed a concurring opinion.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Justice White.