There Is a Statute of Limitations For Challenging Permits In Massachusetts (Or, We’re Crazy Here, But Not That Crazy)

Those who operate industrial facilities or do development in Massachusetts often know far more than they would like about Chapter 214, § 7A, the environmental citizens’ suit provision of the Massachusetts General Laws. Chapter 214, § 7A, eliminates plaintiffs’ usual obligation to demonstrate standing and simply gives 10 citizens the right to sue to prevent or eliminate “damage to the environment.” The damage does have to constitute a violation of a statute, regulation, ordinance, or by-law, the major purpose of which is to prevent damage to the environment.

Chapter 214, § 7A, does not contain any statute of limitations. Does this mean that ten persons can sue any time, even if the conduct complained of is allowed under a permit and the permit was issued long ago, as long as the plaintiff alleges that the permit should not have been issued and the conduct in fact violates a statute or regulation? Thankfully, Judge Locke of the Superior Court recently answered that question, posed in EarthSource v. Burt, with an emphatic “No.”

Full disclosure time – this firm (including yours truly) represents Covanta, the private defendant, in EarthSource v. Burt.

Earthsource v. Burt deals with efforts by Covanta, which operates four municipal waste combustors in Massachusetts, to initiate a process at its SEMASS combustor in which it would take what are known as fats, oils, and grease (or FOGs) from restaurants, separate the FOGs from the associated wastewater, recycle the wastewater, and combust the FOGs at the SEMASS facility. EarthSource is a competitor of Covanta in the FOGs processing business. It and some citizens (many, if not all, of them affiliated with EarthSource or related entities) brought suit against MassDEP and Covanta, not just to stop the FOG project at SEMASS, but alleging wholesale violations by Covanta at all of its Massachusetts facilities. Routinely, the complaint alleged that DEP misinterpreted its own regulations, should not have issued the permits, and that the permits were void “ab initio.” 

Covanta and DEP both moved to dismiss those counts that involved claims related to permits issued outside the appeal period provided in either the applicable substantive statute or in the Massachusetts Administrative Procedure Act, ch. 30A, § 14. EarthSource argued that the APA does not limit the time in which suits can be brought under Chapter 214, § 7A. Judge Locke concluded otherwise, noting that:

a contrary rule would be disruptive to the permitting agencies and that G.L. c. 214, § 7A should not become a means to disturb otherwise settled permits whenever a group of plaintiffs chooses to file suit sometime in the future.

Truer words were never spoken. Going forward, the rule for persons who don’t like permits is going to be “speak now or forever hold your peace.”

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