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Weinberger v. Romero-Barcelo

Citation: 12 ELR 20538
No. No. 80-1990, 456 U.S. 305/17 ERC 1217/(U.S., 04/27/1982) Rev'd & remanded

Revising a First Circuit decision, 11 ELR 20391, the Supreme Court holds that the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) does not require that discharges of pollutants to the nation's waters without national pollutant discharge elimination system (NPDES) permits be immediately enjoined since the district courts retain sufficient equitable discretion under the Act to order other relief to achieve compliance. The district court found that the unpermitted discharge, the firing of ordnance into the sea during Navy training exercises, did not significantly pollute the receiving waters, but it ordered the Navy to apply for an NPDES permit as required by the FWPCA. The First Circuit vacated the order and required the district court to issue an immediate injunction. The Court first notes that injunctions are extraordinary equitable remedies and that courts have discretion to withhold injunctive relief if other remedies would better reconcile the competing claims of the parties or better serve the public interest. Although Congress may limit the courts' equitable discretion, it must do so unambiguously. Where, as with the FWPCA, several remedies are provided, injunctive relief in mandatory only where necessary to achieve the ultimate objective of the statute, which in this case is the reduction of water pollution, not maintaining the integrity of a permit program. Since the discharge of ordnance had not polluted the waters, failure to enjoin the activity will not prevent achievement of that objective. The Court then finds that the statutory scheme as a whole, with its phased-in compliance schedules and provision for remedial orders, contemplates the exercise of judicial discretion in fashioning remedies.The Court also holds that $313, which allows the President to exempt federal facilities from compliance with the NPDES permit program, was not intended to provide the sole means of relieving federal facilities of the burden of immediate compliance with the permit requirement. The Court notes that the legislative history of the Act indicates that the courts retain their equitable discretion since the Act's enforcement provisions come largely from the Refuse Act of 1899, under which injunctive relief has not been treated as mandatory. It reverses and remands the circuit court's decision to determine whether the district court abused its discretion in denying an immediate cessation order.

A concurring opinion by Justice Powell would find that the district court acted within its residual equitable discretion and would order the court of appeals simply to affirm that court's order.

Justice Stevens, dissenting, would uphold the First Circuit's decision, agreeing that the Navy's violation of the NPDES permit requirement was blatant and ongoing and that the problem of national security risks resulting from enjoining the training activities was expressly provided for in § 313. The case law establishes that injunctions are the appropriate remedy for ongoing violations of federal statutes protecting important public interests. Finally, the Justice notes that the majority opinion gives the federal judiciary an inappropriate role in decisions on technical issues concerning compliance schedules and political issues involved in balancing water pollution control and national security interests, which Congress clearly delegated to the Environmental Protection Agency and the President, respectively.

Counsel for Petitioners
Elinor H. Stillman, Ass't to the Solicitor General
Office of the Solicitor General
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-2035

Anthony C. Liotta, Edward J. Shawaker, Anne S. Almy
Land and Natural Resources Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-2813

Captain Thomas E. Flynn
Office of the Judge Advocate General
Department of the Navy, Washington DC 20350
(202) 325-9870

Richard M. Cornelius, Ass't General Counsel
Department of the Navy, Washington DC 20350
(202) 695-6907

Counsel for Respondents
John A. Hodges, Timothy L. Harker, Lawrence White, Jeffrey N. Martin, Lewis A. Rivlin
Peabody, Rivlin, Lambert & Meyers
12th Floor, 1150 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036
(202) 457-1000

Thomas L. Lincoln; Hector Reichard de Cardona, Attorney General
Department of Justice, P.O. Box 192, San Juan PR 00902
(809) 722-0116

Gerardo A. Carlo, Special Counsel to the Governor
Edificio Banco Popular, Oficina 603, San Juan PR 00905
(809) 723-0113