FAQ: Citizen Suits & the Clean Water Act

Who can sue under the Clean Water Act?
Any citizen with “standing” can sue under the Clean Water Act.  To have standing a citizen must prove that he or she has an interest which is or may be adversely affected by an alleged polluter’s actions.   These kinds of suits are called “citizen suits.”  A citizen cannot sue if the EPA or the state has already sued the alleged violator.

Why does the Clean Water Act allow citizens to sue?
More than 60 federal statutes encourage private enforcement by citizens, including the American with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Amendments Act, the Clean Water Act and several other environmental laws. 

All these laws recognize that the state and federal agencies responsible for enforcing them may not have the resources they need to do the job.  To supplement the work of the agencies, the Congress empowers citizens to act as “private attorneys general” who can bring their own lawsuits to enforce the existing laws.  These laws also recognize that the citizens who bring such suits are working in the public interest – their suits will benefit the general public, not just themselves. 

Who can be sued under the Clean Water Act? 
Any person or entity (including the United States government) may be sued for causing injury by polluting.   In addition, suits may be brought against the administrator of the relevant government agency for failing to perform a duty required under the law. 

What kinds of injuries can citizens sue for?
Injuries can be aesthetic, conservational, recreational, or physical.  

When can the suit be brought?
Suits can be brought after giving a 60-day notice to (1) the administrator of the relevant government agency, (2) the state in which the alleged violation occurs, and (3) the alleged violator.   This notice is required before a suit can be brought. 

Where can the suit be filed?
The suit must be brought in the federal district court that has jurisdiction over the “source” of the alleged pollution. 

What damages can plaintiffs hope to win?
Plaintiffs can be awarded injunctions to stop the action that caused the violation.  Plaintiffs can sue to have the violator fined (up to $25,000 per day) under the Clean Water Act.  However, all fines awarded by a court are payable to the government and not to the plaintiff.   There is no right to monetary damages for plaintiffs under the Clean Water Act.  In some cases, Plaintiffs can be awarded attorney’s fees.


Back To Top

500 W. Baltimore Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-1786 PHONE: (410) 706-7214 FAX: (410) 706-4045 / TDD: (410) 706-7714
Copyright © 2014, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. All Rights Reserved.

Hotline Hotline



UM | About This Site | Site Map | Contact Us


500 W. Baltimore Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-1786 PHONE: (410) 706-7214 FAX: (410) 706-4045 / TDD: (410) 706-7714

Copyright © 2014, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. All Rights Reserved