At the request of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, the Government Accountability Office investigated how much Uncle Sam was spending in defense of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The report, delivered last month, was an eye opener.
The Justice Department spent $43 million to defend the EPA in cases filed from 1998 to 2010. Approximately $14.2 million was awarded to plaintiffs in these lawsuits to cover attorney fees. About 75% of the awards went to environmental groups between 2003 and 2010.
About 59% of the 2,500 cases against EPA from 1995 to 2011 were filed over Clean Air Act disputes. Another 20% were filed over Clean Water Act issues. And 6% concerned Resource Conservation and Recovery Act issues.
The Treasury Department paid that $14.2 million to prevailing plaintiffs for attorney fees and costs related to the cases. Since not all Justice Department and U.S. Attorneys' Offices don't have a standardized data tracking, not all of their costs were included. EPA also paid out $1.4 million out of its own pocket from fiscal year 2006 through fiscal year 2010 in attorney fees and costs.
The largest litigator category comprised trade associations (25 percent), followed by private companies (23 percent), local environmental groups and citizens' groups (16 percent), and national environmental groups (14 percent).
National and local environmental groups were the biggest litigators with 30% of the cases. They were followed by trade associations at 25% and private companies at 23%. The biggest of the biggies included Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project and Natural Resources Defense Council. They, of course, represented many regional and local clients such as Waterkeepers Alliance and Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Tangled legal web we weave
The GAO report noted that the focus of litigation over a particular statute changes with time. Early cases may set precedents affecting how the statute is implemented later.
Because no major rewriting of environmental statutes occurred in 20 years, plaintiffs are increasingly bringing suits. And, judges are making decisions about how to interpret statutes in situations for which rules were not explicitly written.
For instance, parties disagree over whether the Clean Air Act should be used to regulate greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These are substances that some stakeholders say the act was not originally designed to regulate.
As long as litigators gain by lower court interpretation, there will be more suits – and still more tabs for Uncle Sam and U.S. taxpayers to pick up.
To skim the 55-page GAO report and the list of who sued who, click on report.