As part of a recent settlement in the United States between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a large U.S. coal producer, the company must pay $227.5 million as a result of over 6,000 violations of the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of pollutants into a US water body without a permit or in excess of the limits set out in a permit. Between 2006 and 2013, the EPA documented at least 6,289 violations of wastewater discharge permit limits.
The company grossly exceeded the amount of pollutants it was allowed to discharge under its permits, often exceeding the limitations by over 100%. In most instances, the violations stemmed from the company’s failure to properly operate existing treatment systems (or install adequate ones) and implement appropriate water management plans. As a result of the violations, large quantities of harmful pollutants were discharged, including heavy metals such as iron, aluminum, selenium and manganese, as well as oil and grease and settleable solids. These pollutants have the potential to greatly alter aquatic habitats and can be toxic to fish and birds.
Under the settlement, the company must pay $27.5 million as a civil penalty for the egregious violations. The company must also spend an additional $200 million installing and operating effective wastewater treatment systems and implementing comprehensive upgrades to reduce discharges of pollutants at its facilities in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania.
The EPA enforces environmental laws as part of its effort to protect human health and the environment. As a result, the EPA has broad discretion both in bringing enforcement actions and the amount of civil penalties it issues against a violator. The harsh penalties in this example emphasize the grave importance of complying with environmental regulations and permits, and the detrimental results of non-compliance.