Natural Resources Damages in the United States
Natural Resources Damages in Environmental Law
Damages assessed by a court against someone who has discharged hazardous substances or oil. Their purpose is to compensate the government for replacement, restoration, and rehabilitation of natural resources. For example, if an oil spill kills fish and otters and coats the shoreline, the appropriate government official may sue for the injury to the natural resources. Natural resources damages do not go to the U.S. Treasury as other penalties for environmental violations do. Instead, they are placed in a fund to directly benefit the injured area. Natural resources damages are authorized under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act and the Oil Pollution Act, as it was incorporated into the Clean Water Act.
When natural resources have been harmed by contamination, simply cleaning up the substance may not repair the harm. It may be necessary to replace the lost wildlife or biota. Restoration to its original condition may take years. In the meantime, the public has lost the benefit of the natural resources and is therefore entitled to damages. The person authorized to obtain natural resources damages is the trustee of the natural resource. For federal lands, those trustees are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (coastal waters), the Department of Interior (many national forests, parks and monuments), the Department of Agriculture (national agricultural lands), the Department of Defense (military bases), and the Department of Energy (property managed by that department). For state owned or state controlled natural resources, governors name the trustees.
The value of lost resources is calculated according to the methods the trustees have developed in regulations. It includes lost revenues in some situations, but the primary emphasis is on restoration and rehabilitation of the resource. The trustee may also recover the incidental expenses incurred in calculating the loss.
Natural resource damage claims are different from other types of environmental penalties in who may bring the lawsuit. Public interest groups, private parties, and governmental agencies that are not trustees of the resource do not have the right to sue. In these types of claims, the harm is seen as a public injury, and the caretaker of the resource is the one who addresses it. However, private lawsuits may be brought on other grounds, as can be seen from the many lawsuits surrounding the Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. For example, if fishing is impaired because the oil or hazardous substance resulted in elimination or reduction of the fish, fishermen have a separate claim for the damage and may bring a lawsuit under a different theory.
Releases of hazardous substances and oil must be cleaned up according to the National Contingency Plan. Therefore, the cleanup is the first order of business. Assessment of damages must be preceded by compliance with the same requirements the Environmental Protection Agency and other parties must follow for other types of cleanups.
Based on “Environment and the Law. A Dictionary”.