Litigation and Enforcement

One of the core values of San Diego Coastkeeper is that of “fearless advocacy.” We are committed to addressing environmental threats directly and effectively, on the basis of sound scientific and legal principles. Our advocacy takes many forms, up to and including going head to head with polluters and holding them accountable through litigation. More often than not, these enforcement actions result in positive collaboration where both parties work together to resolve the pollution issue and establish best practices that put the former polluter at the head of the pack as a regional leader in environmental management.

The Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act, like many of the groundbreaking environmental laws passed in the early 1970s, recognizes that the job of protecting and restoring our waters and environment is too big for government to do alone. To help supplement – and at times supplant – enforcement by government agencies like the EPA, Congress empowered citizens with the right to enforce the Clean Water Act to stop illegal discharges of pollution into our environment through citizen suit provisions. Laws that contain citizen suit provisions, such as the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air Act, have played a major role in improving and preserving the environment since their passage, and remain important tools holding polluters accountable and defending our natural resources.

Coastkeeper and the Clean Water Act

San Diego Coastkeeper exercises the ability to enforce laws like the Clean Water Act on behalf of our communities in order to stop illegal pollution and protect our local rivers, steams, and coast. Coastkeeper’s in-house legal and science team identifies polluters through extensive document review, research, water quality sampling, and/or tips from the public. We then present our case and our legal basis for enforcement to the entity discharging pollutants (called the “discharger”) in a letter called a “60 Day Notice of Intent to File Suit.” The purpose of this notice is to seek discharger compliance with the Clean Water Act, preferably through settlement in a legally binding document. When such settlement is not possible, or discharger chooses to litigate instead of coming into compliance with the law, we bring the fight for our waters into the courts.

The citizen suits initiated by San Diego Coastkeeper have one goal: To ensure compliance with existing environmental law, which mandates that discharges from industrial and government sites must be protective of our waterways and the people and ecosystems that depend on them. Because government agencies responsible for enforcing environmental laws often dedicate so few resources to such enforcement, and because the political will to improve enforcement is often absent, citizen groups such as Coastkeeper are responsible for the vast majority of Clean Water Act enforcement in San Diego County. Without citizen groups willing to go to bat for the environment, polluters would have no reason to stop polluting.

Check out our accomplishments page to read up on some of the advocacy wins we have had over the past two decades.

Using Settlements to Support Environmental Projects

Clean Water Act violations can make polluters liable for civil penalties of over $51,000 per violation, per day. Because, under the law, violations that occurred in prior years are also subject to enforcement, these fines can add up to millions of dollars over the course of several years. Rather than seeking to have polluters pay large fines into state or federal accounts and that are rarely used to actually address pollution impacts locally in San Diego, Coastkeeper prefers to have dischargers instead pay a smaller portion of those total fines to a local non-profit environmental organization doing good work in the watershed that the polluter has harmed. In this way, we are able to channel support to a variety of environmental projects (called “supplemental environmental projects,” or “SEPs”). Through Coastkeeper’s numerous enforcement actions, we have been able to direct hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to other local non-profits, including San Diego Audubon Society, San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy, Ocean Connectors, and Preserve Calavera, among others, for use in important watershed enhancement and environmental restoration projects. By using citizen suit provisions to enforce environmental laws, Coastkeeper is able to stop pollution, protect and restore local waters, and direct much-needed funding through SEP settlements to support other local non-profits that work hard to protect our environment.

Administrative Challenges

Often, ensuring protection of the environment means making sure the policies, permits, and plans that serve as tools to implement environmental laws are sufficient to meet the needs of our communities and environment. San Diego Coastkeeper works tirelessly to track discharge permit development and to keep an eye on the policies and plans developed by our local, state, and national agencies responsible for protecting our environment. In cases where we believe that government agencies are falling short of their legal responsibilities, outright failing to follow the law, or acting in a manner that risks weakening the law, San Diego Coastkeeper challenges the scientific or legal basis of their actions before administrative, state, or federal courts. The goal of such challenges are to seek a court order requiring the agency in question act in a manner that is in compliance with the law and is sufficient to protect our waters and environment.