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U.S. Supreme Court

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

Weinberger v. Romero-Barcelo

No. 80-1990

Argued February 23, 1982

Decided April 27, 1982

456 U.S. 305


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 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. 456 U. S. 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. 456 U. S. 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

Page 456 U. S. 306

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. 456 U. S. 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. 456 U. S. 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. 456 U. S. 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. 456 U. S. 321. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 456 U. S. 322.

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