Government agencies are in charge of preventing people from being harmed by violations of environmental law. However, it is not uncommon for actions of others to harm the environment and the property of someone else without violating any laws. If there is no law being broken, the government is generally powerless to stop the action, even if it is environmentally harmful.  

If the Government Cannot Do Anything, What Can Private Citizens Do? 

Just because the government is powerless does not mean there is nothing that can be done. There are a number of actions an individual can take to stop someone else from harming their land, including:

  • Private nuisance: Generally, this type of lawsuit can be brought when there is an interference with the use and enjoyment of one’s land. For example, a company near Dave’s home produces dust for months. The dust ends up on Dave’s front lawn and keeps Dave from opening his windows. Dave calls the local authorities, who report that the company is in compliance with all local air quality laws. However, even though the company has not violated any laws, Dave can probably sue the company in a private nuisance action.
  • Public nuisance: This type of lawsuit can be brought when there is an interference with the common right of the general public. For example, a toxic plant pollutes the air over an entire city. Daisy is a resident in that city, and she can bring a public nuisance lawsuit, even if the toxic plant is in compliance with environmental laws. 
  • Citizen suits: Many environmental laws have specific provisions that allow citizens to file lawsuits. However, before a suit can be filed, a violation of an environmental law must occur. For example, a factory violates the Clean Water Act by spilling chemicals into a river. As a citizen who lives downstream, you can bring a citizen suit to address their violations.  
  • Public participation: speak up!  If you and your community get involved and make your voices heard, it can have a great impact on getting what you want. 

Are There Any Other Options?

Yes. Perhaps the best way to challenge a type of environmental harm is through invalidating an local zoning ordinance or governmental order. If the government or any one of its laws is involved, there may even be the potential for legal action under the Takings Clause. These options are more difficult and complex than a simple civil suit.

Seeking Legal Help

The best way to find out is to contact an environmental attorney. A lawyer will be able to inform you of your likelihood of success and the best options to pursue.