Industrial Water Pollution: Hunting Polluters for Fun and Profit

You can make entities that cause industrial water pollution pay a fine and collect a share for yourself if you know how to apply the 1899 Refuse Act and follow the necessary legal procedures.

| January/February 1973

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    Industrial water pollution has made contaminated culverts like this one a much too common sight.
    ILLUSTRATION: CRAIG SPONSELLER

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We're all painfully aware — or should be, by now — that a frightening amount of industrial water pollution goes on in our country, and that far too many of the offenders go scot-free.

Still, some polluters are prosecuted — often at the insistence of private citizens or environmental protection groups — and a fair number of the violators are convicted and fined. That's not news, either... but here's a fact you may not know: In the last couple of years, some of the activists whose complaints led to those convictions have been awarded shares of the fines levied against the wrongdoing corporations.

In 1970, for example, a mother and her son collected $12,500 for reporting a polluter at their own doorstep… a sportsmen's club bagged part of the $200,000 fine imposed on the Anaconda Wire and Cable Company during 1971… and in a recent Wisconsin case, a congressman was awarded $1,740 merely for pointing out to the authorities that evidence of a suspect's polluting activities was already on file.

In theory, any U.S. citizen can help run down an offending industry, with a chance of cashing in on the proceeds of the company's conviction. The polluter pays you and the state. If you attempt to do so without thorough preparation, however, making a successful complaint may not be all that easy. Since the local authorities — like their superiors in Washington — often do not share your zeal for pollution chasing, you'd be well-advised to know your rights under the law before you start...  or you just might find that your letters go unanswered and your telephone calls are brushed off.



If you want to go bounty-hunting, then, you need to know [1] the legal grounds for your complaint and [2] the correct procedure for filing it. Until recently the published writing on both [1] and [2] has been vague and scattered, if not inaccessible. This article is designed to help close that information gap by offering [a] a brief account of the law and its conservationist application and [b] a reading list for more detailed study. If you'd like to help check the industrial discharges that foul our waters — and maybe rake in a cash reward too — read on.

The Moiety Acts

 The bread you may collect for turning in a polluter of this country's waterways is technically called a moiety. That's legalese for "a half share", though recent decisions have varied this percentage.






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