Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Ruling Limits Pollution Fines after Spills into Streams, Groundwater

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Ruling Limits Pollution Fines after Spills into Streams, Groundwater

Article excerpt

Fines for spills into state streams and groundwater must be based on how long the initial release lasts and not on how many days the pollution lingers, Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court ruled Wednesday in a decision that upends state environmental regulators' longstanding practice for calculating penalties.

A three-judge panel sided with Downtown-based EQT Corp. and rejected the state Department of Environmental Protection's contention that environmental fines should continue to mount when pollution remains in water or moves from one area of water to another after an active leak is plugged.

DEP's interpretation of the state Clean Streams Law "would result in potentially limitless continuing violations" for a single spill as long as any remnant of the pollution stays in state waters or until state-approved remediation was completed, Judge P. Kevin Brobson wrote for the court.

"To rule otherwise would be tantamount to punishing a polluter indefinitely, or at least for as long as the initially-released industrial waste remains in the waters of the Commonwealth, for the same violation," he wrote.

In a statement, EQT applauded the court's decision and said it "correctly captures the problem with the DEP's interpretation, which is that it creates uncertainty and leads to the absurd result of never-ending and unquantifiable liability in cases of this nature."

DEP spokesman Neil Shader said Wednesday the department "is extremely disappointed in the Commonwealth Court decision" and will be appealing to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The ruling relates to one part of the Clean Streams Law, section 301, which applies to releases of industrial waste.

Judge Brobson wrote that the decision "does not mean that there are no consequences for leaving industrial waste in the waters of the Commonwealth following a release" because the law allows DEP to take legal action to stop violations and gives the agency authority to revoke permits or halt operations. …

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