Landmark Legal Cases to Secure Clean Water and Clean Air as a Right For All

For five decades, Earthjustice has fought thousands of legal cases, representing our clients free of charge.

See some of our proudest accomplishments to strengthen protections for the air we breathe and the water we drink, and to hold polluters accountable when they violate those protections.

Right to Breathe

1978–today · Nationwide

Earthjustice has relentlessly used the Clean Air Act to force air pollution safeguards that are more protective of human health across the country.

In a notable series of cases, with key court rulings in 2008 and 2014, Earthjustice litigation succeeded in closing a gaping air pollution loophole known as the “startup, shutdown, and malfunction exemption” by exposing it as blatantly unlawful. The loophole allowed industrial facilities, such as refineries, to blanket nearby communities with toxic air pollution, all without warning or accountability.

It was an important step toward improving communities’ health and bolstering their ability to protect themselves against air pollution. Strong pollution limits for industry are critical to protecting people’s health at the community level where exposures to dangerous air contaminants occur.

Our Clients & Partners include: Coalition for a Safe Environment, Environmental Integrity Project, Friends of Hudson, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, and Sierra Club

Work by Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., Office

Mercury Pollution and Other Air Toxics

1997–Today · Nationwide

Twenty years of litigation by Earthjustice led to the Mercury & Air Toxics Standards in 2012.

It was the first-ever clean air protections against the nation's dirtiest polluters — coal-fired power plants. And it worked. Five years after the protections were issued, scientists documented a startling drop in the level of mercury contamination in Atlantic bluefin tuna.

Earthjustice returned to court when the Trump administration sought to roll back the protections. We continue to defend the Mercury & Air Toxics Standards, which saves up to 11,000 lives per year.

Our Clients & Partners include: Air Alliance Houston, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Clean Air Council, Downwinders at Risk, Montana Environmental Information Center, and NAACP

Work by Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., Office

National Air Quality Standards

2000–today · Nationwide

The air is easier to breathe today due to the protections provided by the Clean Air Act. But there are still over 130 million Americans living with areas that have dangerous levels of ozone pollution..

Sometimes called “smog,” ozone is linked to premature deaths, damages plants and forests, and stunts agricultural crop growth. Formed by emissions from cars, trucks, and factories, ozone is also a greenhouse gas. Curtailing it is a powerful way to help solve the climate crisis and protect human health.

Through multiple lawsuits over many administrations, Earthjustice has pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to update and strengthen its national ozone standards and make the air cleaner.

We will continue to fight in the courts to ensure that industries can no longer pollute with impunity.

Our Clients & Partners include: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Lung Association, American Public Health Association, Appalachian Mountain Club, Environmental Defense Fund, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Physicians for Social Responsibility

Work by Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., Office

Coal Ash

2006–Today · Nationwide

Coal ash, the toxic remains of coal burning in power plants, is full of chemicals that cause cancer, developmental disorders, and reproductive problems. Up until 2014, there were no federal regulations for the disposal of the millions of tons of coal ash generated each year.

That finally changed following a settlement in a hard-fought lawsuit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of 10 environmental and public health groups and the Moapa Band of Paiutes.

Since then, Earthjustice has continued to protect our water and air from coal ash contamination, including by challenging Trump-era rollbacks of federal coal ash regulations and by working in states across the country.

In Illinois, alongside environmental organizations and community groups, Earthjustice worked on every step of the creation of the state’s coal ash rule. This precedent-setting, comprehensive rule not only set the parameters for cleaning up toxic coal ash and restoring the environment, it also made necessary improvements to public participation and environmental justice.

Our Clients & Partners include: Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Clean Power Lake County, Environmental Integrity Project, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Metro East Green Alliance, Moapa Band of Paiutes, Montana Environmental Information Center, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Prairie Rivers Network, Sierra Club, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Western North Carolina Alliance

Work by Earthjustice’s Clean Energy Program

Back Forty Mine

2017–Today · Wisconsin

A five-year legal fight to protect Menominee Tribal lands and the waters of the Menominee River and the Great Lakes successfully resulted in the mine developer relinquishing its permits.

The Back Forty mine, a massive proposed mine and ore-processing center, poses an existential threat to the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin’s cultural landscape along the banks of their namesake river.

Earthjustice and the Menominee Tribe remain vigilant, as the mine developer has already announced plans to submit yet another proposal to revive the ill-conceived project.

The case is part of Earthjustice’s long history of partnering with Tribes, Native groups, and Indigenous communities to ensure their natural and cultural resources are protected for future generations.

Our Client: Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin

Work by Earthjustice’s Northwest Regional Office and Tribal Partnerships Program

Orthographic map centered on Southeast Asia.

Jakarta Air Pollution

2019 · Indonesia

We worked with our partner the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law on a citizen suit to compel national and provincial government agencies to bring Jakarta into compliance with ambient pollution limits.

Two years after the lawsuit was filed, a three-judge panel at the Central Jakarta District Court unanimously ruled President Joko Widodo and top officials neglected Indonesian citizens’ rights to clean air, ordering them to improve air quality.

The case targets pollution from the numerous coal-fired power plants that surround Jakarta and contribute to Jakarta’s unhealthy air quality.

This case would reduce toxic air pollution in one of the most polluted cities in the world and create additional incentives to replace coal plants with clean energy sources.

Our Partner: Indonesian Center for Environmental Law

Work by Earthjustice’s International Program

Earthjustice fought a decades-long legal battle involving a Maui wastewater treatment plant and its discharges of treated sewage all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. And clean water protections won.

Our win prevented the creation of a huge loophole in the Clean Water Act, one of the country’s bedrock environmental laws that we have used in many cases over the decades to protect our nation’s waters.

In the first application of the Supreme Court’s decision, environmental protections prevailed. The decision could impact future legal battles over water contamination from pollution sources such as leaking pipelines, feedlot manure lagoons, and coal ash ponds.

Our Clients & Partners include: Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club-Maui Group, Surfrider Foundation, and West Maui Preservation Association

Work by Earthjustice’s Mid-Pacific Regional Office

Phillips 66 Refinery

2020 · California

After being notified by Earthjustice of an intent to sue, Phillips 66 agreed to fix repeated and ongoing violations of air pollution laws caused by leaking equipment at its refineries in Wilmington and Carson, Calif.

Over five years, Phillips 66 discharged fugitive emissions far in excess of its permit. In one case, it dumped into the air 200 times more carcinogenic benzene than it was allowed to. The South Coast Air Quality Management District didn’t do anything to stop the problem.

Earthjustice, in partnership with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, built our own enforcement case with the use of public information.

The law and facts were so clear that Philips 66 settled before we even filed suit and has committed to replacing equipment several leak detection and repair actions to reduce pollution.

Our Client: East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice

Work by Earthjustice’s Community Partnerships Program

Waters of the U.S.

2021 · Nationwide

Millions of streams and wetlands across the United States regained legal protections, after a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice successfully challenged a disastrous Trump-era rule that allowed industries to dump pesticides and other pollutants into these bodies of water.

Under Trump, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cut millions of streams and wetlands out of safeguards guaranteed by the Clean Water Act — even though the agency’s own science advisors warned that pollution could spread downstream, harming larger bodies of water and the communities that rely on them.

Without Clean Water Act protections, industries can dump uncontrolled discharges of toxic pollution, harming drinking water supplies, recreational waters, wildlife, animals, and people.

Everyone and everything needs clean water. For decades, Earthjustice has worked to uphold and strengthen the Clean Water Act’s protections for all waters of the United States.

Our Clients & Partners include: Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Quinault Indian Nation, and Tohono O’odham Nation

Work by Earthjustice’s Northwest Regional Office, Policy and Legislation Team, and Rocky Mountain Regional Office