Inland Empire Waterkeeper, an affiliate program of Orange County Coastkeeper, won a key victory on Sept. 20 in their ongoing lawsuit against Corona Clay Company for its discharge of pollutants into Temescal Creek, which flows into the Santa Ana River Basin.
Waterkeeper sued Corona Clay in 2018, alleging it illegally discharged pollutants into Temescal Creek and violated various pollution-prevention provisions of the permit it was operating under—all violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
In an earlier ruling from the federal Central District Court of California, District Judge David O. Carter granted Waterkeeper partial summary judgment on a number of its claims – meaning those claims would not go to trial – and assessed Corona Clay a $3.7 million fine. However, the jury sided with Corona Clay on the remaining claims, finding the company not liable for various other permit violations.
Both parties appealed the district court’s judgment. A three-member panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard the case and ruled 2-1 to vacate the district court’s judgment and the jury verdict, Circuit Judge Daniel P. Collins dissenting.
Writing for the majority, Circuit Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz held that, “Because the district court’s jury instructions required Coastkeeper to prove elements not required […] we vacate the jury verdict.”
In addition, the majority affirmed Waterkeeper’s legal standing – its ability to bring the case in the first place – landing a victory for citizen plaintiffs across the nation and well in line with Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit precedent.
Corona Clay still has the opportunity to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court or a full panel of the Ninth Circuit. Barring an appeal, the case will return to the Central District for reevaluation in line with the Ninth Circuit’s decision.
The Clean Water Act regulates discharges of pollutants into waters of the United States. Although the United States Environmental Protection Agency or a state environmental agency can go after violators of the Clean Water Act, it also allows citizens affected by a polluter’s discharges to sue violators. Coastkeeper brought the lawsuit on behalf of citizens harmed by Corona Clay Company’s pollution near the Santa Ana River Basin.
“Coastkeeper and Waterkeeper are elated that the Ninth Circuit affirmed our standing and vacated the jury verdict finding in favor of Defendant, as the jury instruction constituted prejudicial error and was the basis of our appeal.” said Sarah Spinuzzi, Orange County Coastkeeper’s senior staff attorney. “We are confident that we will prevail on all claims on remand, and the previously stayed civil penalties and injunctive relief will be reinstated.”
“Citizen enforcement of the Clean Water Act is critical to ensuring our waterways are protected from industrial stormwater runoff,” said Garry Brown, Orange County Coastkeeper’s president and founder. “Industrial polluters like Corona Clay Company have a duty to keep their pollution out of our communities and ecosystems, and Waterkeeper will ensure that those obligations are upheld.”