The Clean Water Act has a ubiquitous and extensive reach. It applies to both coastal and inland waters in the United States. The Great Lakes are included in the Act’s jurisdiction. The recent settlement of a lawsuit involving an alleged Clean Water Act violation illustrates the statute’s jurisdictional reach and the severity of its punishments.
The alleged violation
Algoma Central Corporation is a Canadian corporation based in St. Catharines, Ontario. The Company operates a large fleet of self-unloading dry-bulk ships that transport bulk commodities such as iron ore, salt and grain on the Great Lakes and St. Seaway.
On June 6, 2017, the company’s ship Algoma Strongfield was traveling on Lake Ontario when it reported an accidental discharge of approximately 11,887 gallons of oily bilge water into the lake. The crew member who initiated the discharge was unaware that the tank in question contained pollutants and not uncontaminated lake water. When other members of the ship’s crew discovered that the discharge contained contaminants, they ordered that the discharge be halted. The discharge was reported to environmental authorities in both Canada and the United States.
Lawsuit and settlement
The United States sued Algoma in federal district court in western New York seeking fines and other penalties for the discharge. The government alleged that Algoma was negligent in failing to inform the entire crew of the Strongfield of the oily bilge water in the tank.
Instead of going to trial, Algoma settled the case by agreeing to pay a fine of $500,000 and to accept three years of limitations on its license to operate.
Takeaways from the case
This case demonstrates how unintended conduct can lead to significant sanctions against a company. Any company or individual who is faced with similar accusations and prospective penalties may wish to consult an experienced environmental lawyer. A knowledgeable attorney can evaluate the evidence, estimate the chances of a favorable outcome, and, if appropriate, negotiate an acceptable settlement with the government authorities who are in charge of the case.