Israel Environment Bulletin Winter 1996-5756, Vol. 19, No. 1

CITIZEN SUIT ACTIONS: A FOCUS ON THE IUED

by Miriam Gitlin
Israel Union for Environmental Defense

Enforcement of environmental law through citizen suit action has been gradually increasing over the last four to five years. The Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED), as the only legal environmental advocacy group in Israel, stands at the forefront of this effort. The organization, made up chiefly of lawyers and scientists, represents citizens and grassroots organizations, initiates public interest actions and acts as a ‘watchdog’ over public bodies.

Over the years, the number of requests received from citizens for legal assistance by the IUED has multiplied. Citizens not only have become more aware of IUED’s existence, but have also become more environmentally aware. With heightened sense of urgency, they are seeking legal means to protect themselves against destructive pollution and other environmental nuisances.

IUED offers free legal advice to concerned individuals and grassroots organizations throughout the country and often, if the case is suitable, acts on behalf of the complainants. Citizens and public organizations have three main avenues to seek legal redress:

1) The Abatement of Nuisances (Citizens Suit) Law 1992 provides that a person damaged or likely to be damaged by an environmental nuisance can sue for an injunction (prohibitory or mandatory), as long as sixty days have elapsed since the notification of the proposed action was sent to the causer of the nuisance and the relevant authorities and neither have taken reasonable steps to rectify the situation. (See accompanying article).

2) Many environmental statutes are criminal laws and as such incorporate a procedure of private complaints whereby anyone can file a private criminal prosecution against a polluter.

3) The ordinary law of torts and nuisances.

Amendments to the Citizens Suits Law, the Water Law, the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Land Based Sources Law and the Planning and Building Law specifically grant IUED legal standing to sue or prosecute under these laws, thus easing the way to initiate public interest actions.

Often the most egregious breaches of environmental law or the most potentially harmful activities represent too overwhelming a challenge for private citierage treatment plant. In a separate instance, the municipality of Safed was ordered to remove medical waste dumped at an illegal garbage dumpsite. Pressure applied by the IUED has time and again ensured that the relevant public authority carried out its enforcement duties.

A major obstacle to citizen enforcement is the difficulty in obtaining information in the hands of public authorities. Israel does not yet have a freedom of information law, and consequently requests to public authorities for environmental data are frequently refused or not acted upon. In most cases, it is almost impossible to prove that a breach of environmental law has occurred without such data.

IUED is combating this legal lacuna in two ways: firstly, by acting as a major player in the coalition of NGOs lobbying for a Freedom of Access to Information Law, and secondly, through its Citizens Environmental Laboratory.

The Laboratory is maintained by team of IUED scientists who not only carry out regular fieldwork measuring pollutant levels but also conduct analytical testing for air, water and noise pollution at cost or minimal fees for ordinary citizens. The scientific staff work closely with the legal team to meet their case needs for environmental data and scientific consultation.

Scientists and lawyers at IUED have been working together on a groundbreaking Environmental Equity Project. A series of studies published during the late 1980s suggested that the connection between high level exposure to environmental risk and political and economic powerlessness is not coincidental. Two regions, in the Negev and in the Galilee, have been targeted based on the severity of the environmental problems. It is hoped that IUED will strengthen the work of existing activists and organizations within these regions and work cooperatively to identify and combat environmental hazards through the better enforcement of environmental laws.

For both public interest groups and private citizens the financial costs of litigation constitute a heavy burden. In many cases compensation is not available by way of damages, and often when costs are awarded they do not cover the total financial outlay of protracted litigation. IUED is obliged to limit its caseload, which means that for many ordinary citizens legal redress through litigation is too expensive. Unfortunately, until a fairer system of costs and damages is formulated, many ordinary citizens will find that they are precluded from asserting their legal rights and protecting themselves against environmental harm.

Even so, the growth in environmental awareness means that IUED and private citizens will become ever more active in enforcing environmental laws. Polluters are being forced to realize that their behavior is not longer acceptable and that citizens, citizen groups and public interest organizations will use all their legal rights and powers to stop them.

IUED has the human resources and expertise to initiate actions it considers in the general public interest and, wherever possible, it will involve citizens and grassroots organizations in the actions brought.

With Israel in the midst of a development boom, IUED has elevated the preservation of open spaces to top priority. Large scale construction projects have the potential to cause irreversible harm to the environment. Much of the work initiated by the IUED recently has therefore been in opposing development schemes submitted for planning committee approval, such as the plethora of marinas planned for the Israeli Mediterranean coastline.

IUED is active in its role of ‘watchdog’ over governmental agencies. The organization has often intervened to ensure the enforcement of environmental laws or the implementation of an authority’s own duties. For example, as a consequence of suits brought by IUED, the Ramle and Lod municipalities were ordered to develop a timetable for implementing an advanced sewerage treatment plant. In a separate instance, the municipality of Safed was ordered to remove medical waste dumped at an illegal garbage dumpsite. Pressure applied by the IUED has time and again ensured that the relevant public authority carried out its enforcement duties.

A major obstacle to citizen enforcement is the difficulty in obtaining information in the hands of public authorities. Israel does not yet have a freedom of information law, and consequently requests to public authorities for environmental data are frequently refused or not acted upon. In most cases, it is almost impossible to prove that a breach of environmental law has occurred without such data.

IUED is combating this legal lacuna in two ways: firstly, by acting as a major player in the coalition of NGOs lobbying for a Freedom of Access to Information Law, and secondly, through its Citizens Environmental Laboratory.

The Laboratory is maintained by team of IUED scientists who not only carry out regular fieldwork measuring pollutant levels but also conduct analytical testing for air, water and noise pollution at cost or minimal fees for ordinary citizens. The scientific staff work closely with the legal team to meet their case needs for environmental data and scientific consultation.

Scientists and lawyers at IUED have been working together on a groundbreaking Environmental Equity Project. A series of studies published during the late 1980s suggested that the connection between high level exposure to environmental risk and political and economic powerlessness is not coincidental. Two regions, in the Negev and in the Galilee, have been targeted based on the severity of the environmental problems. It is hoped that IUED will strengthen the work of existing activists and organizations within these regions and work cooperatively to identify and combat environmental hazards through the better enforcement of environmental laws.

For both public interest groups and private citizens the financial costs of litigation constitute a heavy burden. In many cases compensation is not available by way of damages, and often when costs are awarded they do not cover the total financial outlay of protracted litigation. IUED is obliged to limit its caseload, which means that for many ordinary citizens legal redress through litigation is too expensive. Unfortunately, until a fairer system of costs and damages is formulated, many ordinary citizens will find that they are precluded from asserting their legal rights and protecting themselves against environmental harm.

Even so, the growth in environmental awareness means that IUED and private citizens will become ever more active in enforcing environmental laws. Polluters are being forced to realize that their behavior is not longer acceptable and that citizens, citizen groups and public interest organizations will use all their legal rights and powers to stop them.