Thursday, August 26, 2010

Just Because It’s Old Doesn’t Make It Right

By Surfrider Summer Legal Intern Tip Wonhoff

In the 1640s, most major colonial settlements in North America were situated along bodies of water—bays, coves, rivers, lakes, and the ocean. To encourage littoral owners to build piers and wharves, Massachusetts Bay colonial authorities extended private title of property to the mean low water mark. As landowners constructed piers and wharves out from their land, they opened up the coastline for commercial trade and travel. Locations such as Boston Harbor thrived throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

During this same era, in addition to their providing a key source of transit and communication, bodies of water were a prime source of sustenance. Fish and waterfowl were integral components of colonists’ diets.

So, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed its Body of Liberties ordinance in 1641 and amended it in 1647, titling it the Liberties Common, not only did it provide for private property ownership to the mean low water mark, but it granted a public easement over the intertidal zone for fishing, fowling, and navigation:

Every inhabitant that is an howse holder shall have free fishing and fowling in any great ponds and bayes, coves and rivers, so farre as the sea ebbes and flowes...

…in all creeks, coves and other places about and upon salt water, where the sea ebbs and flows, the proprietor or the land adjoyning shall have propriety to the low water mark, where the sea doth not ebbe above a hundred rods, and not more wheresoever it ebbs further: provided that such proprietor shall not by this liberty have power to stop or hinder the passage of boats or other vessels, in or through any sea, creeks or coves, to other men's houses or lands.

Parts of three present-day coastal states were once part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. To this day, both Maine and Massachusetts continue to abide by the Body of Liberties and Liberties Common. They recognize littoral landowners’ property rights down to the mean-low-water mark; and, both Maine and Massachusetts still have only expressly recognized the public easement over the intertidal zone for activities directly relating to fishing, fowling, and navigation. See, e.g. Bell v. Town of Wells, 557 A.2d 168 (Me. 1989) (overturning a state statute granting a public easement for recreational use of the intertidal zone), Eaton v. Wells, 760 A.2d 232 (Me. 2000), Michaelson v. Silver Beach Imp. Ass’n, Inc., 342 Mass. 251 (Mass. 1961).

New Hampshire, on the other hand, has taken steps to guarantee broader public access and enjoyment to her beaches. Back in 1862, the Supreme Judicial Court of New Hampshire, in Clement v. Burns, 43 N.H. 609 (1862), declined to follow the 1641 ordinance: “As a rule of positive law, the ordinance of 1641 was not binding upon New-Hampshire.” Clement at 13. Then, in 1889, the court discussed why New Hampshire rejected the Massachusetts Bay Colony ordinance’s extension of private property rights to the low-water mark:

While the [Massachusetts] ordinance maintains the public title of large ponds, it converts to private property, and gives away, a great amount of tide-land… In this state, the transfer of the fee to the abutters has not been necessary to encourage improvements below high-water mark. Their common-law right of reasonable use has been sufficient for all the purposes for which the [Massachusetts] ordinance changed the common-law title…. Private ownership of so much of the tide-land (not exceeding 100 rods in width) as is bare twice a day, and public ownership where vessels can come to a wharf at low tide, is not an adequate or useful adjustment of rights for commercial purposes. Where tide-land ought to be improved and occupied by the abutter, above and below low-water mark, he has a common-law right to improve and occupy it.

Concord Co. v. Robertson, 66 N.H. 1, 26, 25 A. 718 (1889). In 1999, the Supreme Court of New Hampshire further determined that the common law establishes the high water mark at the mean-high-tide line. Purdie v. Attorney General, 143 N.H. 661 (1999).

So, on the one hand, New Hampshire has adopted a common-sense approach that allows citizens to stroll along the wet sand and enjoy the scenic ocean without worry of trespassing onto private property.

On the other, however, Massachusetts and Maine have opted to follow the 17th Century Massachusetts colonial ordinance. In those states, according to a strict and what some may argue is an obsolete interpretation of the colonial ordinance, beachgoers possess an easement over the intertidal zone for bird hunting, but not bird watching. Similarly, beachgoers are more prone to citation for carrying a surfboard across the intertidal zone, rather than a harpoon gun. The Maine judicial system has acknowledged this flawed logic: “Pursuant to our holding in Bell, a citizen of the state may walk along a beach carrying a fishing rod or a gun, but may not walk along that same beach empty-handed or carrying a surfboard.” Eaton v. Town of Wells, 760 A.2d 232 (2000) (Saufley, J., concurring). Yet, the state has not yet fully rectified this nonsensical distinction.

The Surfrider Foundation, and its Northern New England Chapter, have been fighting on behalf of beachgoers to push for extending the definition of “fishing, fowling, and navigation” to include surfing, SCUBA diving, and other more-tangential forms of navigation. Those cases are currently pending.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lawyers and Legal Issues in the Gulf

Following the Deepwater Horizon blowout and subsequent spill, which turned into the worst environmental disaster in United States history, the Gulf was not only teeming with oil but also with attorneys to address the many causes of action flowing from the spill. The obvious harm that resulted to workers, community and environment must be addressed and our legal system is necessarily involved. There are a wide range of lawsuits that continue to be filed in the aftermath of this spill. The families of the deceased oil rig employees have wrongful death claims, and those crewmembers who survived may have injury claims, including possible emotional distress claims. The thousands of fishermen, crabbers, shrimpers and oyster harvesters who rely on the healthy Gulf coast waters for their livelihoods also have a legal claim. In addition, property owners along the coast, restaurants and even vacation renters will want reimbursement for economic damages. Finally, environmental organizations have filed suit for the extensive ecological harm to the Gulf and coastal wetlands.

Several environmental groups have already met to coordinate legal issues and lawsuits. Currently, there are seven Endangered Species Act cases, three Clean Water Act cases, five Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act cases, and three National Environmental Policy Act cases, amongst other environmental lawsuits in preparation or already filed. Here is a "Surfrider on Location" video description of the scene along the coast, which is the subject matter of these suits aimed at protecting and restoring coastal and ocean resources. There is likely still an excess of 100 million gallons of oil in the Gulf waters and the Coast Guard is regularly finding oiled animals and tar balls, including this one-ton tar ball below:

Surfrider Foundation intends to be part of the public process for addressing Natural Resources Damage Assessment, which will also have a number of legal issues encompassed in the NRDA procedure. The NRDA process for the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is already underway. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the three steps in an NRDA process are: 1) Preliminary Assessment, 2) Injury Assessment/Restoration Planning, and 3) Restoration Implementation.

During the injury assessment and restoration planning of NRDA, natural resources agency appointed Trustees must determine potential restoration projects. Trustees must consider a reasonable range of alternative approaches, addressing both primary and compensatory restoration, including a “natural” approach without human intervention. “Active” primary restoration approaches would conversely involve direct intervention, and could include removing residual contamination, or replacing vegetation and essential species. NRDA Trustees must then evaluate the alternatives, considering 1) costs, 2) the extent the alternative is expected to return conditions to the baseline and compensate for interim loss, 3) the alternative’s expected chance for success, 4) the chance the alternative would help avoid future injury, or future collateral injury, 5) the extent the alternative would improve multiple resources, and 6) the alternative’s effects on health and safety.

In addition to litigation scoping and engagement, Surfrider Foundation is actively working to support a moratorium on any new drilling through support of the No New Drilling Act and the West Coast Ocean Protection Act. Additionally, we are asking the Senate to follow the House of Representative's lead in passing the CLEAR Act to address necessary reforms to current drilling regulations and by creating an Ocean Resources Conservation and Assistance fund.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Clean Water Act Case Study: Surfrider Foundation’s Early Victory against Humboldt Pulp Mills

By Surfrider Summer Legal Intern Staley Prom

Surfrider Foundation, with its nearly 55,000 members and 90 chapters world-wide, has been protecting oceans, waves, and beaches for over 25 years. Today’s members may know little or nothing about Surfrider’s first major victory in the early ‘90s, fighting major polluters in Humboldt Bay, California, near the popular North Jetty surf spot. Surfrider’s litigation resulted in one of the largest Clean Water Act settlements in the United States at that time.

In the late ‘80s, two pulp mills on Humboldt Bay’s northern peninsula, owned by the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation (“L-P”) and the Simpson Paper Company (“Simpson”), discharged a combined 40 million gallons of untreated wastewater per day into the Pacific Ocean. The mills used chlorine in their “Kraft” bleaching process to turn brown pulp into white paper. The EPA allowed the mills to operate under modified National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits, issued in 1987. However, even with the waivers, the mills quickly began violating these permits. In late 1988, the EPA issued complaints and ordered the mills to clean up their act and comply with their permits. Meanwhile, area surfers and beach goers complained of foul colored and foul smelling water near the mills, and reported skin and eye irritation, nausea, and bacterial illnesses; scientists found traces of highly toxic chemicals, dioxin and furan, created in the chlorine bleaching process, in smokestack emissions and in fish and crab samples near the mills’ discharge outfalls.

In May of 1989, following a year-long research effort which determined that the mills’ discharges exceeded limitations for pH, chronic toxicity, total suspended solids, sanitary waste, black liquor discharges, ammonia nitrogen, and rates of dilution, discoloration, and natural light, Surfrider filed suit against the mills using the Clean Water Act’s citizen suit provision (four months after filing its Notice of Intent to Sue with the EPA). Surfrider claimed the mills were not complying with the terms of their NPDES permits pursuant to the Clean Water Act (CWA) §402, U.S.C. §1342, and further claimed this amounted to a violation of CWA §301(a), 33 U.S.C. §1311, which prohibits the discharge of pollutants from a point source into navigable waters of the U.S. unless in compliance with the Act. The specific violations Surfrider identified were taken directly from the discharge monitoring reports (“DMRs”) and non-compliance reports (“NCRs”) the defendants submitted pursuant to federal reporting requirements and defendants’ NPDES permits. Surfrider additionally claimed that both mills were violating consent decrees (settlements) they had entered into with the U.S. EPA in 1983 after alleged civil violations of the CWA. Surfrider sought to shut down the mills until they complied with their permits, and over $25 million in civil penalties.

Two months later, in July, 1989, the EPA filed suit against both mills; and in September, 1989 the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California consolidated the Surfrider and EPA suits. Nearly two years later, in July, 1991, Surfrider settled with both defendants; and in September, 1991, both Surfrider and the EPA entered into consent decrees with the mills.

The "Humboldt Area Recreation Enhancement and Water Quality Fund" was a result of Surfrider's litigation efforts and a settlement with the mills. Both mills contributed $175,000 ($350,000 total) in funds to improve recreational and environmental resources. Surfrider used part of these funds to implement and maintain a shower and emergency telephone at the North Jetty, as well as to improve the area’s Samoa Dunes National Recreation Area initially, and the remainder of the settlement award was disbursed through the Humboldt Area Foundation. Humboldt Area Foundation permanently manages the fund, which makes interest available in perpetuity to fund grant projects meeting the spirit of the settlement agreement. A portion of the fund was initially used to evaluate and monitor the mills’ progress in cleaning up operations, and now funds projects to benefit marine or aquatic recreation and water quality in the area. To date, grants total $127,000, and have gone to projects which include: sand dunes restoration and educational projects, summer youth programs and surf camps, and swimming and boating safety programs. For a list of all grants made through the “Humboldt Bay Recreation Enhancement and Water Quality Fund,” click here.

The Surfrider and EPA consent decrees required the mills to each pay $2.9 million (for a total of $5.8 million), which at the time, were the third largest penalties levied by the EPA for CWA violations, and the largest in the Western U.S. The consent decrees also required the mills to implement treatment measures or process changes to stop their CWA violations, complete a toxicity treatment study, and install a treatment system to solve the toxicity problem. L-P was required to extend its existing outfalls (where the mill’s effluent is released into the ocean) sufficiently to keep its effluent away from recreational areas, and Simpson was required to extend its outfalls unless additional treatment could render its effluent safe for human contact. Additionally, the L-P agreement required L-P to analyze the feasibility of further changes in its mill’s processes to reduce the use of chlorine in its pulp bleaching process.

This case study illustrates the power of the Clean Water Act’s citizen suit provision for use by organizations such as Surfrider Foundation to fight large industrial water polluters. When Surfrider filed suit, the Foundation had only around 5,000 members, yet was able to successfully fight for the public interest and stop the pollution of a precious California coastal resource. Surfrider’s lawsuit drew national attention to the matter and prompted the EPA to intervene, thereby utilizing the federal government’s resources and expertise in the litigation. Moreover, settlement was a victory for Surfrider, as it provided the opportunity to obtain $350,000 to fund extensive clean water and recreation enhancement projects in the Humboldt Area, which continue today.

If you live in the Humboldt Bay area and would like to get involved with Surfrider’s Humboldt Chapter, please visit:

Photo courtesy of Copyright (C) 2002-2010 Kenneth & Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project,