7th Circuit Holds that Contamination Does Not Automatically Mean Irreparable Harm

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently found that a company did not have to conduct any additional cleanup at its site based on a RCRA citizen suit when the company was already conducting a remediation with state oversight. Lajim, LLC v. General Electric Company, Nos. 18-1522 & 18-2880, Decided March 4, 2019. In 2004, Illinois EPA and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office brought an enforcement action against General Electric Company (“GE”) to conduct a remediation at GE’s manufacturing plant in Morrison, IL. GE entered into a Consent Decree to investigate the extent of the contamination and prepare and submit work plans for the investigation and remediation. From 2010 through 2013, GE  moved forward with the investigation of the Site. In 2013, plaintiffs (the neighbors of the GE plant), filed a RCRA suit claiming that the contamination presented an imminent and substantial danger to health or the environment and requested injunctive relief.

The District Court for the Northern District of Illinois found that the groundwater was contaminated and that it may cause imminent and substantial endangerment, and thus held GE liable under RCRA. Lajim, LLC v. GE, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 144704 (N.D. Ill. 2017). However, the District Court denied plaintiffs’ request for an injunction that would have ordered GE to clean up the property.

The 7th Circuit upheld the lower court’s conclusions. Plaintiffs argued that because the District Court found GE liable under RCRA, then the Court was required to issue injunctive relief. The 7th Circuit rejected that argument on three levels. First, the 7th Circuit looked at the plain language of the RCRA statute, noting that nothing in the language mandates injunctive relief. Second, the 7th Circuit found that  traditional equitable principles continue to apply to environmental statutes, and the principles of equity apply when considering an injunction. Thus, under RCRA, merely finding liability does not mean an automatic injunction. Instead, a court must consider traditional equitable factors to determine the necessity of injunctive relief. Third, the 7th Circuit found that plaintiffs must show harm or a risk of harm. Plaintiffs did not provide the Court with sufficient facts to conclude the Consent Order in the state action was deficient and ineffective, or facts to contradict Illinois EPA’s review and approval of the cleanup.

Importantly, both Courts rejected plaintiffs’ claim that irreparable harm is “self-evident” where there is contamination. The 7th Circuit concluded that RCRA is not a “cleanup” statute, and “does not require a court-ordered cleanup where the court has not found such action necessary to prevent harm to the public or the environment…”

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