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United States v. Massachusetts Water Resources Auth.

ELR Citation: 31 ELR 20819
Nos. 00-2028, 256 F.3d 36/(1st Cir., 07/16/2001) Aff'd

The court holds that a district court acted within its discretion by declining to order a Massachusetts public water district to install a filtration system even though the district violated the Surface Water Treatment Rule, which requires public water systems to install a filtration system if they fail to meet certain regulatory standards by a prescribed deadline. The district court found the water district's proposed treatment plan, which utilized an "ozonation" process rather than filtration, to be a sound alternative. Moreover, given that the district had just one avoidance-criteria violation since it entered into an administrative order on consent with the state environmental agency, and given its numerous efforts to improve water quality, the district court determined that the United States had not demonstrated that reallocating funds from the district's planned health-related system improvements to filtration was warranted. The court, therefore, denied the U.S. request for an injunction. On appeal, the United States argued that under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), courts have no discretion to withhold indefinitely a provided-for remedy, such as filtration, if it has been demonstrated that a public water system has violated a substantive requirement of the Act.

The court first holds that the district court did not act outside the scope of its authority with respect to the specific statute at issue in declining to issue an injunction. The U.S. Supreme Court has held repeatedly that the retention of a court's discretion to shape an injunction authorized by statute to the equities of the case—or not to issue an injunction at all—is to be presumed, but this presumption may be overcome by a proper showing of congressional intent. The SDWA contains a presumption expressed by Congress that filtration will almost always be the preferred remedy for a surface water treatment rule violation. However, the SDWA's text and legislative history do not give rise to a "necessary and inescapable inference" that the substantive remedies made available under the Act must always be ordered whenever a regulation promulgated under the Act has been violated. Rather, as long as a court issues a "judgment as public health may require," as set forth in SDWA §1414(b), thereby ensuring that the public system provides water that is safe according to standards identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the court retains a measure of flexibility under the Act to tailor the specifics of an equitable remedy that will help bring about that goal. In this case, the district court was careful to shape its decision so as to ensure that the district's drinking water will meet the avoidance-criteria standards and it assumed the responsibility of monitoring the district's compliance in the event that future violations require a reexamination of the decision not to order filtration.

A prior decision in this litigation is published at 30 ELR 20535.]

Counsel for Plaintiff
John M. Stevens
Foley, Hoag & Eliot
One Post Office Sq., Boston MA 02109
(617) 832-1000

Counsel for Defendants
Robert H. Oakley
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Stahl, J. Before Boudin and Torruella, JJ.