Federal Court of Appeals Reverses Dismissal of Upstate South Carolina Clean Water Act Lawsuit
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – On Wednesday, July 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the U.S. District Court‘s dismissal of a lawsuit involving an Upstate South Carolina wedding venue’s repeated pollution of public waterways.
The court’s decision came after years of a legal battle between Upstate conservation groups and Arabella Farm, a wedding venue located along scenic Highway 11 in Pickens County. In 2020, on behalf of Upstate Forever, South Carolina Trout Unlimited and Naturaland Trust, the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP) took legal action against the owners and operators of the site over repeated and egregious violations of the Clean Water Act and the resulting environmental degradation and property damage.
Literal tons of sediment emanating from the site unlawfully flowed directly into adjacent streams and downstream into the Eastatoe River and Little Eastatoe Creek, compromising valuable water resources that support the area’s trout population and provide a much beloved respite for anglers, hikers and other nature lovers.
The Clean Water Act suit was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in Greenville on March 30, 2021, on weakly reasoned procedural grounds. One month later, SCELP filed a notice of appeal on behalf of the three conservation groups.
Just over a full year later, on May 5,2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Richmond, Virginia. The appeal and the oral argument focused on the District Court’s decision to bar the citizen suit because South Carolina had initiated private, informal administrative enforcement against Arabella Farm for their violations of the Clean Water Act. The Act requires public notice and an opportunity to participate in administrative enforcement that was indisputably absent in this case.
"We're pleased with this outcome," said Scott Park, Upstate Forever's Glenn Hilliard Director of Land Conservation. "As a nationally accredited land trust, Upstate Forever works diligently to safeguard the conservation values of the easements we steward. The Fourth Circuit's decision is a positive step towards mitigating the harm done to the impacted property and water resources in this ecologically critical area."
“We are entrusted by the community to protect these natural and public resources for the people and wildlife that depend on them and this ruling will help us accomplish that mission,” said Wes Cooler, a Trustee with Naturaland Trust.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit hears appeals from the district courts in South Carolina, as well as North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. The court’s decision could have far reaching consequences when it comes to holding polluters accountable and ensuring that citizen suits cannot be dismissed because of informal state administrative enforcement of violations that excludes the public from participating.
“This decision enforces the Clean Water Act’s mandate that the public must have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the administrative enforcement process,” said Michael Martinez, lead attorney on the case for the South Carolina Environmental Law Project. “The District Court’s dismissal contradicted the clear evidence that South Carolina’s entirely private and informal administrative enforcement violated this requirement by impeding the public’s ability to protect the waterways that belong to them, and the Fourth Circuit’s reversal remedied that error.”
Wednesday’s decision allows SCELP and its conservation partners to prove Arabella Farm’s violations of the Clean Water Act and hold Arabella Farm accountable for its blatant disregard of the law and the resulting pollution its destructive actions caused. “The South Carolina Trout Unlimited Council, representing well over 3,000 Trout Unlimited members in South Carolina, are grateful for this reversal,” said Gary Davis, Conservation Chair for the South Carolina Trout Unlimited Council. “We are optimistic that we can now continue to litigate and eventually stop the uncontrolled stormwater runoff from Arabella Farm into Eastatoe Creek and seek restitution for the damages previously done.”
Michael Martinez, Esquire
South Carolina Environmental Law Project
firstname.lastname@example.org, (843) 527-0078
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The South Carolina Environmental Law Project is a nonprofit public interest law firm. We use our legal expertise to protect land, water and communities across South Carolina.