The Conservation Law Foundation, which usually spends its time advocating for the environment with policy makers, is taking a more direct route to fighting pollution: suing companies it believes are polluting Massachusetts waterways.
The Boston-based organization launched a second round of lawsuits in US court in April, accusing four scrap metal recycling companies in southeastern Massachusetts of violating the federal Clean Water Act by allegedly discharging industrial pollutants into nearby waterways.
Its first spate of suits, last year, were against five scrap metal recycling facilities near the Mystic River. All those suits are in various stages of resolution.
“Over the last two years, we’ve enhanced our enforcement work, with a specific focus on the Clean Water Act,’’ said Christopher Kilian, director of the foundation’s Clean Water Program. “We are really ramping up efforts to directly enforce federal environmental laws.’’
The defendants in the suits filed in the US District Court for the State of Massachusetts are: Cody and Tobin Inc.’s scrap metal recycling facility in New Bedford; Old Colony Scrap Inc. in Taunton; Sone Alloys Inc. and Joseph Enos & Sons Trust, which operate a scrap metal recycling facility in Taunton; and Sylvia’s Auto Parts Inc., a salvage yard in South Dartmouth.
The companies declined to comment.
The lawsuits were filed under a provision of the Clean Water Act that allows private citizens to sue alleged polluters. While such enforcement work is typically left to government regulators, Kilian said the foundation felt it was necessary to bring the lawsuits because budget cuts have left enforcement agencies shorthanded.
“It’s no secret that state and federal environmental resources are drying up,’’ Kilian said. “There are far more sites with violations than the environmental agencies can handle.’’
One sign that government regulators are overwhelmed: The foundation said the majority of facilities in Massachusetts that should have storm water permits either do not have them or are not in compliance with them.
An attorney for the US Environmental Protection Agency in Boston declined to comment on the agency’s enforcement abilities, but did say he welcomed the Conservation Law Foundation’s actions.
“When the Conservation Law Foundation is off base, a federal court will tell them so,’’ said William Walsh-Rogalski.
A spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Environment Protection said that the agency would not comment on pending litigation.
Suing alleged polluters is not a radical departure for the Conservation Law Foundation. It made its mark with a lawsuit against Massachusetts in 1983 that led to the cleanup of Boston Harbor. Since then, even the threat of court action by the group’s lawyers has compelled government and industry officials to negotiate environmental benefits, including the expansion of mass transit services included in the Big Dig.
The lawsuits against the five scrap metal facilities along the Mystic came as many federal and local organizations were working to improve the watershed around the river. Three of the firms sued by the foundation have since made donations to a fund for the watershed and are instituting changes to comply with pollution limits; another settled out of court; and the fifth is facing civil penalties.
The Conservation Law Foundation hired environmental enforcement litigator Zachary Griefen last fall. The four cases launched in April were the first initiated by the foundation under Griefen’s direction.
Kate Bowditch, who as director of special projects for the Charles River Watershed Association has worked extensively with the Conservation Law Foundation, said that she is not surprised that the organization has shifted tactics.
“One of the reasons they’re so effective is because their legal and advocacy strategies respond to the needs on the ground,’’ she said. “Sometimes that means targeting the federal or state government, other times it means going after business or industry.’’
D.C. Denison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.