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United States v. Atlantic-Richfield Co.

Citation: 7 ELR 20635
No. No. 75-3096, 429 F. Supp. 830/9 ERC 1993/(E.D. Pa., 03/29/1977)

Granting the government's motion for summary judgment, the court, in a case of first impression in the Third Circuit, upholds civil penalties assessed for oil spills under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), 33 U.S.C. §§ 1251-1376, ELR 41100-28, notwithstanding that defendants reported their own accidental spills and paid the clean-up costs. Ten government suits to enforce the administratively-assessed penalties against two corporate defendants under FWPCA § 1321(b)(6), ELR 41118, were consolidated because of similar facts and identical legal issues.

Defendants argued from two bases: first, statutory construction of the FWPCA shows that Congress did not intend to impose the civil penalty on accidental, reporting self-cleaners; secondly, on constitutional grounds, the penalty was irrational and a denial of due process, and the penalty is actually criminal in nature so as to trigger Fifth and Sixth Amendment protections. The court holds the "use immunity" of FWPCA § 1321(b)(5), ELR 41118, inapplicable because § 1321(b)(6) does not contain criminal sanctions. In its determination of the meaning of § 1321(b)(6) for this case, the court relies on United States v. LeBoeuf Bros. Towing Co., 537 F.2d 149, 6 ELR 20708 (5th Cir. 1976), cert. denied, 97 S. Ct. 1688 (1977); United States v. W.B. Enterprises, Inc., 378 F. Supp. 420 (S.D.N.Y. 1974); United States v. Independent Bulk Transport, Inc., 394 F. Supp. 1319 (S.D.N.Y. 1975). The court distinguishes United States v. General Motors Corp., 403 F. Supp. 1151, 6 ELR 20248 (D. Conn. 1975), because defendants did not request a de novo trial on the issue of fault to consider reduction in penalties.

In rejecting defendants' statutory construction arguments, the court refutes the notion that the § 1321(b)(6) civil action is really a criminal action to which the § 1321(b)(5) immunity applies because the statute is unambiguous in defining the penalty as civil rather than criminal. The goal of the statute is to deter spills, and it does not make fault an element of the cause of action. Admittedly the facts here would not support an action in negligence, but this is an action to enforce a penalty. Using an economic analysis, the court finds that even where defendants are not at fault, the § 1321(b)(6) penalty serves not only as a punishment but for civil regulation purposes. The court also disagrees with defendants' argument that not applying the immunity to § 1321(b)(6) penalties will frustrate the clean water goal by encouraging spillers not to report spills. The court discerns Congress' intent to counter the risk of non-reporting by imposing criminal sanctions for failure to report and granting immunity only for criminal cases. Finally, the court rejects the contention that the clean-up vitiated the proscription against harmful discharges. "Harmfulness" refers to the discharge rather than to subsequent mitigation. United States v. W.B. Enterprises, Inc., supra.

Defendants also argue that imposition of the penalty on accidental, reporting self-cleaners is unfair and a denial of due process. The court, however, finds a rational nexus between penalizing spillers and using the fund to which the penalties are paid for surveillance and clean-up tasks, and emphasizes that the deterrent purpose of the penalty serves the statutory goal of preventing spills. Finally, the court concludes that defendants do not have a constitutional right to a jury trial and criminal standards of proof because the penalty in § 1321(b)(6) is only monetary and does not involve the personal liberty of defendants.

The full text of this opinion is available from ELR (14 pp. $1.75, ELR Order No. C-1124).

Counsel for Plaintiff
David W. Marston, U.S. Attorney; Frank J. Bove, Ass't U.S. Attorney;Robert N. deLuca, Chief Civil Ass't U.S. Attorney
Old Courthouse, 9th & Market St., Philadelphia PA 19106
(215) 597-2556

Joan Cloonan
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 739-3140

Counsel for Defendants
Eugene M. FitzMaurice
Legal Department, Atlantic Richfield Co.
1500 Market St., Philadelphia PA 19101
(215) 557-2000

Becker, J.

[OPINION OMITTED BY PUBLISHER IN ORIGINAL SOURCE]