South Carolina bill would ban citizen suits for enforcement of state pollution laws

Dive Brief:

  • A South Carolina House committee voted 13-10 last week to advance a bill that would strip citizens of their right to sue utilities and other companies under state law for polluting the environment, The State reports. 
  • Several corporations and utilities, particularly those that deal with coal ash, have backed a ban on citizen suits, claiming that they are unnecessary and detrimental to progress in the state. Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-fired electricity generation and contains heavy metals and other toxic substances.
  • Because a similar bill passed the state Senate last year, the measure would head directly to Gov. Nikki Haley (R) for consideration if it passes the full House. It is expected to be discussed in the coming weeks. 

Dive Insight:

This isn't the first time that South Carolina lawmakers have considered a bill to ban citizen suits on issues related to pollution.

In 2012, legislators removed a provision under the state's Pollution Control Act (PCA) that gave citizens the right to sue over concerns of illegal pollution, though the legislation included a clause that allowed citizen suits for any pollution that might have occurred before the bill's passage. 

The current legislation would eliminate a citizen's ability to sue for past pollution prior to the provision in the PCA.  The bill is another version of H. 3925, labelled the "polluter amnesty act" by critics, which passed the House in 2014 by a vote of 80-30, but languished in the Senate until they passed it in 2015. The bill then sat in the House until the Judiciary Committee took it up last week. 

If passed, the legislation would take away one of the enforcement methods under the state to handle issues like coal ash contamination. The 2014 EPA ruling on Coal Combustion Residuals designates citizen suits as the primary strategy for holding utilities accountable in meeting the rule's technical standards for coal ash waste disposal. 

The citizen suit provision in the past allowed for environmental groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center to sue on behalf of citizens.

In one example, the SELC filed enforcement proceedings in state and federal courts under the South Carolina PCA and was able to obtain agreements from three major power utilities in the state, including South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G), Duke Energy, and Santee Cooper. They each agreed to remove their approximately 20 million tons of coal ash in total from unlined pits to dry lined storage, according to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

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Filed Under: Regulation & Policy
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