Naturaland Trust v. Dakota Finance LLC, No. 21-1517 (4th Cir. 2022)Annotate this Case
“Arabella Farm”, is bounded by three bodies of water—Clearwater Branch, Peach Orchard Branch, and an unnamed tributary of the Eastatoe River. Arabella Farm began clearing 20 acres of land to create its venue. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (Department) conducted an inspection to evaluate the farm’s compliance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program. Defendants’ claimed its work fell within an agricultural exemption to the Clean Water Act’s requirements.
Naturaland Trust and Trout Unlimited (collectively “the conservationists”)—non-profit organizations dedicated to conserving land, water, and natural resources—sent a notice of intent to sue letter to Arabella Farm. As the statute requires, the letter detailed the alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. The district court dismissed the conservationists’ complaint.
The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling. The court held that the district court erred in concluding that the diligent prosecution bar precluded the conservationists’ federal claims. The court explained that the Department’s notice of alleged violation was enough to commence an action that was comparable to one brought under federal law. That notice invited Arabella Farm to an informal, voluntary, private conference with the Department to discuss allegedly unauthorized discharges. Thus, because the Department had not yet commenced an action when the conservationists filed their citizen suit, the diligent prosecution bar does not preclude them from pursuing a civil penalty action. Further, the court held that the district court erred in concluding that Plaintiff was not permitted to sue under the Clean Water Act.