456 U.S. 305 (1982), 80-1990, Weinberger v. Romero-Barcelo

Docket Nº:No. 80-1990
Citation:456 U.S. 305, 102 S.Ct. 1798, 72 L.Ed.2d 91
Party Name:Weinberger v. Romero-Barcelo
Case Date:April 27, 1982
Court:United States Supreme Court

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456 U.S. 305 (1982)

102 S.Ct. 1798, 72 L.Ed.2d 91




No. 80-1990

United States Supreme Court

April 27, 1982

Argued February 23, 1982




The Navy, in the course of using an island off the Puerto Rico coast for air-to-ground weapons training, has discharged ordnance into the waters surrounding the island, when pilots missed land targets and accidentally bombed the waters or intentionally bombed water targets. Respondents sued in Federal District Court to enjoin the Navy's operations, alleging violation of, inter alia, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA). The District Court, while finding that the discharges have not harmed the quality of the water, held that the Navy had violated the FWPCA by discharging ordnance into the waters without first obtaining a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency, and ordered the Navy to apply for a permit, but refused to enjoin the operations pending consideration of the permit application. The Court of Appeals vacated and remanded with instructions to order the Navy to cease the violation until it obtained a permit, holding that the FWPCA withdrew the District Court's equitable discretion to order relief other than an immediate prohibitory injunction.

Held: The FWPCA does not foreclose completely the exercise of a district court's discretion, but, rather than requiring the court to issue an injunction for any and all statutory violations, permits the court to [102 S.Ct. 1800] order relief it considers necessary to secure prompt compliance with the Act, which relief can include, but is not limited to, an order of immediate cessation. Pp. 311-320.

(a) The grant of jurisdiction to a court to ensure compliance with a statute does not suggest an absolute duty to grant injunctive relief under any and all circumstances, and a federal judge sitting as chancellor is not mechanically obligated to grant an injunction for every violation of law. Pp. 311-313.

(b) Here, an injunction is not the only means of ensuring compliance, TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153, distinguished, since the FWPCA provides, for example, for fines and criminal penalties. While the FWPCA's purpose in preserving the integrity of the Nation's waters is to be achieved by compliance with the Act, including compliance with the permit requirements, in this case, the discharge of the ordnance has not polluted

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the waters, and, although the District Court refuse to enjoin the discharge, it neither ignored the statutory violation nor undercut the purpose and function of the permit system. The FWPCA's prohibition against discharge of pollutants can be overcome by the very permit the Navy as ordered to seek. Pp. 313-316.

(c) The statutory scheme as a whole contemplates the exercise of discretion and balancing of equities, and suggests that Congress did not intend to deny courts the discretion to rely on remedies other than an immediate prohibitory injunction. Pp. 316-318.

(d) The provision of the FWPCA permitting the President to exempt federal facilities from compliance with the permit requirements does not indicate congressional intent to limit the court's discretion. The Act permits the exercise of a court's equitable discretion, whether the source of pollution is a private party or a federal agency, to order relief that will achieve compliance with the Act, whereas the exemption permits noncompliance by federal agencies in extraordinary circumstances. Pp. 318-319.

(e) Nor does the legislative history suggest that Congress intended to deny courts their traditional equitable discretion. P. 319.

643 F.2d 835, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 321. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 322.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is whether the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA or Act), 86 Stat. 816, as amended, 33 U.S.C. § 1251 et seq. (1976 ed. and Supp. IV), requires a district court to enjoin immediately all discharges of pollutants

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that do not comply with the Act's permit requirements or whether the district court retains discretion to order other relief to achieve compliance. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that the Act withdrew the courts' equitable discretion. Romero-Barcelo v. Brown, 643 F.2d 835 (1981). We reverse.


For many years, the Navy has used Vieques Island, a small island off the Puerto Rico coast, for weapons training. Currently all Atlantic Fleet vessels assigned to the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean are required to complete their training at Vieques because it permits a full range of exercises under conditions similar to combat. During air-to-ground training, however, pilots sometimes miss land-based targets, and ordnance falls into the sea. That is, accidental bombings of the navigable waters and, occasionally, intentional bombings of water targets occur. The District Court found that these discharges have [102 S.Ct. 1801] not harmed the quality of the water.

In 1978, respondents, who include the Governor of Puerto Rico and residents of the island, sued to enjoin the Navy's operations on the island. Their complaint alleged violations of numerous federal environmental statutes and various other Acts.1 After an extensive hearing, the District Court found

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that, under the explicit terms of the Act, the Navy had violated the Act by discharging ordnance into the waters surrounding the island without first obtaining a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).2 Romero-Barcelo v. Brown, 478 F.Supp. 646 (PR 1979).

Under the FWPCA, the "discharge of any pollutant" requires a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. 33 U.S.C. §§ 1311(a), 1323(a) (1976 ed. and Supp. IV). The term "discharge of any pollutant" is defined as

any addition of any pollutant to the waters of the contiguous zone or the ocean from any point source other than a vessel or other floating craft.

33 U.S.C. § 1362(12) (emphasis added).

Pollutant, in turn, means

dredged spoil, solid waste, incinerator residue, sewage, garbage, sewage sludge, munitions, chemical wastes, biological materials, radioactive materials, heat, wrecked

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or discarded equipment, rock, sand, cellar dirt and industrial, municipal, and agricultural waste discharged into water. . . .

33 U.S.C. § 1362(6) (emphasis added). And, under the Act, a "point source" is

any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft from which pollutant are or may be discharged. . . .

33 U.S.C. § 1362(14) (1976 ed., Supp. IV) (emphasis added). Under the FWPCA, the EPA may not issue an NPDES permit without state certification that the permit conforms to state water quality standards. A State has the authority to deny certification of the permit application or attach conditions to the final permit. 33 U.S.C. § 1341.

As the District Court construed the FWPCA, the release of ordnance from aircraft or from ships into navigable waters is a discharge of pollutants, even though the EPA, which administers the Act, had not promulgated any regulations setting effluent levels or providing for the issuance of an NPDES permit for this category of [102 S.Ct. 1802] pollutants.3 Recognizing that violations of the Act "must be cured," 478 F.Supp. at 707, the District Court ordered the Navy to apply for an NPDES permit. It refused, however, to enjoin Navy operations pending

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consideration of the permit application. It explained that the Navy's "technical violations" were not causing any "appreciable harm" to the environment.4 Id. at 706. Moreover, because of the importance of the island as a training center,

the granting of the injunctive relief sought would cause grievous, and perhaps irreparable harm, not only to Defendant Navy, but to the general welfare of this Nation.5

Id. at 707. The District Court concluded that an injunction was not necessary to ensure suitably prompt compliance by the Navy. To support this conclusion, it emphasized an equity court's traditionally broad discretion in deciding appropriate relief, and quoted from the classic description of injunctive relief in Hecht Co. v. Bowles, 321 U.S. 321, 329-330 (1944): "The historic injunctive process was designed to deter, not to punish."

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated the District Court's order and remanded with instructions that the court order the Navy to cease the violation until it obtained a permit. 643 F.2d 835 (1981). Relying on TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153 (1978), in which this Court held that an imminent violation of the Endangered Species Act required injunctive relief, the Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court

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erred in undertaking a traditional balancing of the parties' competing interests.

Whether or not the Navy's activities in fact harm the coastal waters, it has an absolute statutory obligation to stop any discharges of pollutants until the permit procedure has been followed and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, upon review of the evidence, has granted a permit.

643 F.2d at 861. The court suggested that, if the order would interfere significantly with military preparedness, the Navy should request that the President grant it an exemption from the requirements in the interest of national security.6

[102 S.Ct. 1803] Because this case posed an important question regarding the power of the federal courts...

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