Environmental litigation and trial work encompass cases in federal court, state court, and before various administrative hearing boards. In federal court, cases frequently involve claims under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (“CERCLA” or “Superfund”) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”). Claims under those statutes are typically brought by the United States seeking to compel environmental investigation and clean up and/or to recover penalties and actual costs incurred by the government in conducting such investigations and remediation. Additionally, environmental trial lawyers frequently represent parties who have incurred significant costs to address contamination at a particular location and are seeking contribution from other parties (known as potentially responsible parties) who contributed to the contamination and resultant remediation costs. There are a number of other federal environmental statutes, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act under which environmental advocacy groups can assert citizen suit claims seeking damages and injunctive relief for alleged violations of those statutes where the federal or state government has allegedly failed to enforce the statutes.
Most states conduct aggressive enforcement of their own environmental protection statutes, including mini-Superfund statutes, chemical handling and registration laws, and laws designed to regulate oil and gas operations and mining activities. These statutes allow state environmental agencies to assert similar enforcement and cost recovery claims against companies and other parties allegedly responsible for the release of hazardous substances into the soil, water, groundwater, or air. Additionally, most states have adopted statutes regulating the storage of petroleum products in underground storage tanks under which claims can be asserted by the government or affected parties as a result of releases from those tanks.
Another common type of environmental litigation involves claims for injury to natural resources (e.g., wetlands, lakes, rivers, and estuaries), brought by the trustees for the natural resources under CERCLA, other federal statutes or comparable state statutes. Trustees typically seek damages for injury to those natural resources allegedly caused by the release of hazardous substances. Those damage claims relate primarily to damages for loss of use of the resource while it is impaired or diminished because of contamination.
At the administrative level, environmental litigators frequently represent companies in enforcement actions relating to alleged violations of operating or discharge permits issued by state environmental agencies (including defense of civil penalty actions), the limits or conditions imposed in such permits, or the disposal, management, and storage of wastes generated through industrial and commercial processes. Those claims are typically heard by Administrative Judges appointed by the state.
Another major area of environmental litigation involves private party and class action toxic tort cases in which plaintiffs seek recovery for personal injury, property damage, and medical monitoring based on alleged exposure to hazardous substances in the air, soil, or groundwater. More recently, we have seen an increase in environmental litigation brought by citizens or environmental advocacy groups seeking to block or challenge the issuance of permits or authorizations to construct new power plants or related industrial facilities.
Mark D. Shepard