The Future of the EPA: Taking the Battle to Court

Photo by John Phelan

Legal director Roger Reynolds contemplates what the nomination of Scott Pruitt for EPA administrator means for the environment and CFE/Save the Sound’s legal efforts.

Had Donald Trump spent an entire year scouring the country for someone to weaken clean air and clean water laws and repudiate America’s leadership role in the global battle against climate change, he could not have found a more suitable candidate than Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, whom he picked on Wednesday to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
– New York Times editorial board, December 7, 2016

CFE/Save the Sound, along with a broad coalition of others, is fighting this nomination and I hope and believe that fight will be successful. At the same time, we know that whoever is ultimately confirmed, it is clear that relying exclusively on regulators and the federal government to protect the environment is not a viable strategy going forward.

This isn’t the first time nonprofits and citizens have had to step up to defend the environment when federal agencies neglected their duties. Connecticut Fund for the Environment was formed in 1978. Two years later, Ronald Reagan appointed James Watt and Anne Gorusch as leaders of the Dept. of the Interior and EPA, respectively. As former NRDC advocacy director Greg Wetstone has stated, “Never has America seen two more intensely controversial and blatantly anti-environmental political appointees than Watt and Gorsuch.” Yet thanks to hard work from environmental advocates across the country, progress on the environment did not go backwards. During the distress of the ’80s, CFE and Save the Sound, then separate entities, stepped up to fill the void left by a government neglecting the environment.

When environmental protection is at risk, it’s important to remember that the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and state environmental laws have built-in provisions that empower groups like CFE/Save the Sound and citizens to take action when the government fails to protect our country’s environment and natural resources. With authority to protect their land, air, and water independently of the federal government, states have more control over the fate of their environments than you might think.

Connecticut has a long history as a clean water leader. Just as Connecticut’s constitution served as a model for the Constitution of the United States, Connecticut’s Clean Water Act served as a model for the federal Clean Water Act. Yet, on the state level, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is facing more pressures with fewer resources than ever before. It is all they can do to keep up with existing regulatory requirements that protect our health and environment, much less address new obligations and emerging threats in the way they deserve.

To step up where DEEP lacks resources and to combat what looks to be an anti-environmental cabinet, the CFE/Save the Sound legal team brings seasoned expertise to bat for the protection and improvement of the entire Long Island Sound region. The CFE/Save the Sound three-person legal team consists of two former assistant attorneys general and two former Connecticut Supreme Court clerks with several decades of combined litigation experience—plus many years of additional environmental law experience among the organizational management and Board. We work with powerful national firms such as Morrison Foerster and Kaplan Fox to bolster our impact.

Fortunately, we don’t need to wait years to get into court to push these issues—we’re already heading into the New Year with active cases. In our ongoing battle to save Long Island Sound and the lands surrounding it, we are currently:

  • Suing Westchester and 11 municipalities in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York to stop sewage discharges into Long Island Sound from poorly maintained sewage collection systems.
  • Suing the federal government in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of New York to prevent the sale of Plum Island (interestingly, the President-elect’s company once expressed interest in purchasing and developing the island).
  • Suing Danbury in the Federal District Court for the District of Connecticut for sewage discharges into local streams (which ultimately flow into Long Island Sound) due to clogged and poorly maintained sewage collection systems.
  • Pressuring New York City to clean up surrounding waterways and to limit sewage discharges from its combined stormwater and sanitary sewer system.
  • Petitioning EPA to take necessary measures to clean up nutrient pollution that is polluting and ultimately killing life in Long Island Sound.
  • Investigating and enforcing Clean Water Act permit violations.

Given the current situation, we must move quickly to increase our already substantial efforts by an order of magnitude.

CFE/Save the Sound has a long history of stepping up in both state and federal courts to demand environmental protections, but right now our presence is more important than ever before. Judges are independent with lifelong appointments so that they will not be at the whim of the political moment. The people of Connecticut and New York, regardless of political affiliation or who they voted for, all want clean air, protected public lands, and healthy rivers and Long Island Sound. We will continue to represent you as we take the battle for our environment and Long Island Sound to the courts.

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Wednesday, July 1, 12:00 p.m.
Environmental Film Club: “Greening the Ghetto” Join us for a live Q&A and panel discussion with Save the Sound staff as we talk about “Greening the Ghetto,” a 20-minute TED talk by Majora Carter about her fight for environmental justice in the South Bronx, New York.

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