Citizen lawsuits to promote clean water

John H. Minan
Professor of Law Emeritus University of San Diego School of Law San Diego – California


This research is relevant to the following conference theme stated in the call for papers: “The role of civil society organizations in promoting rights and freedoms and addressing violations.” The human right of access to clean water is the “right and freedom” at the center of my proposed research.
As the former chairman of a California water agency tasked with the enforcement of the federal and state water pollution laws, I have practical and scholarly experience with the importance of citizen participation in promoting and protecting water resources.
This topic is critically important. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment has declared that access to clean water is an absolute and fundamental human right. Yet, it also reports alarming statistics on the impact water pollution has on human health and mortality. Every nation, whether wealthy or poor, is impacted and at risk from inadequate access to clean water. The problem transcends political borders.
The state is the principal protector of the right to water that is free from harmful water pollutants. This obligation is not of recent origin. Early Roman law, for example, declared that certain water resources are held by the state in trust for the people and for the benefit of its citizens. This obligation continues to exist today.
But often the public agencies responsible for ensuring clean water fall short. Political pressures, economic forces, and other factors may contribute to this failing. One solution to this shortcoming is to develop an adequate legal theory of enforceable public rights authorizing citizens to use the courts to enforce those obligations through “citizen suits.” This approach generally requires the grant of standing to citizens to pursue appropriate remedies through the judicial system.
The goal of citizen suits is not to provide compensation for injuries, but rather to ensure more effective enforcement of clean water laws. Thus, citizen suits allow citizens to act as “private attorneys general” by permitting them to sue private organizations or individuals alleged to be in violation of clean water laws. They also authorize suits against public officials who fail to carry out mandatory obligations, such as the promulgation of required regulations or enforcement of the law. The availability and use of citizen suits continues to be extremely important to the promotion of rights and freedoms by allowing private citizens to have a direct public role in enforcing clean water laws.

Read Full PDF Text (English)