ROWLEY — Chris Perley didn’t know he needed a stormwater permit for his marina repair shop until he got a letter from an environmental group earlier this year, threatening to drag him into court for polluting the waterways.
The letter from the Conservation Law Foundation warned Perley that he faced hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for violations of the Clean Water Act dating back years. All that could be avoided, the letter explained, if he settled out of court with the Boston-based environmental group.
“When I first read it, I thought is was a scam,” said Perley, owner of Perley’s Marina Repair Inc. in Rowley. “I almost threw it in the trash.”
Marina owners like Perley have been hit with federal lawsuits by the foundation and other environmental watchdog groups over the past several years.
The suits, filed under a provision of the Clean Water Act that allows “citizens” to take action against polluters, target auto repair shops, saw mills and scrap yards across Massachusetts and New England.
Environmentalists say rainwater washing over roads, parking lots and other surfaces is a major pollution source that deteriorates water quality; fouls rivers, streams and lakes; and harms delicate marine life.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other government regulators, they argue, are failing to protect waterways from run-off pollution.
Most of the business owners threatened with legal action by the environmental groups settle out of court — but not before agreeing to pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and other expenses to resolve the complaints.
Liberty Marina, located next to the Waters and Crane rivers in Danvers, was sued by the Conservation Law Foundation this year for not updating its stormwater permit or doing enough to keep runoff in its parking lot from washing into the rivers. The company hired a lawyer but decided to settle.
Under the settlement, CLF was awarded $20,000 in legal fees, according to court documents. The marina agreed to pay Salem Sound Coastwatch $15,000, in three annual payments of $5,000, to help the group protect and restore the rivers.
The marina was given 90 days from the May 10 date of its settlement to get a federally required stormwater permit and “stop the discharge of pollutants” into the river. It must also conduct four pollution tests a year or face additional fines.
“It was absolute blackmail,” said Peter McAvoy, Liberty Marina’s general manager. “We really had no choice but to settle.”
McAvoy said the marina has since obtained its stormwater permits and intends to comply with the terms of the settlement.
“We thought we were in compliance with the regulations before we got the letter, and the EPA didn’t tell us otherwise,” he said.
The lawsuits have drummed up a lot of money for the Conservation Law Foundation. In two dozen cases that the foundation has settled with marinas and scrap yards in Massachusetts during the past seven years, it banked $702,142 in legal fees, according to a review of federal court documents.
Those settlements also netted promises of $516,150 in payments to local environmental groups involved in remediation projects, including Salem Sound Coastwatch and the Ipswich River Watershed Association. That doesn’t include a default judgment involving an Everett machine shop and $170,000 in penalties payable to the federal government.
Christopher Kilian, director of the foundation’s Clean Water Program, defends the tough tactics against marinas and other businesses, which he said for years have skirted environmental regulations intended to protect waterways from run-off pollution.
“It’s punitive because they’ve been violating the law for 30 years,” he said. “A lack of awareness about a legal obligation is not a defense when you violate that law. And these are businesses that have significant potential to pollute the state’s waterways.”
He said the business are getting off easy because federal law allows fines up to $51,000 per day for water pollution.
“The penalties they could be paying are astronomical,” he said. “We try to impress on the defendants in these cases that the best path forward is to work out a deal and get this resolved as quickly and as cheaply as possible.”
Most of the businesses hit with a demand from CLF settle out of court, get the necessary permits and come into compliance with the federal regulations.
The foundation, which works on environmental issues across New England, has traditionally focused on lobbying government policymakers. It also takes an activist role by tapping a team of lawyers to go after polluters in court.
The group took in more than $8.5 million in revenue in 2014, according to the nonprofit’s tax forms, through a combination of membership dues, government grants and revenue from its legal challenges. It spent more than $7.8 million in the same year. Most of that went to programs on air and water pollution, clean energy and other environmental causes. At least $1 million was spent on salaries, according to its filings with the Internal Revenue Service.
While water pollution enforcement work is usually left to state and federal government regulators, Kilian said third-party groups are filling a gap caused by state and federal budget cuts in recent years, which have undercut enforcement efforts.
“It’s no surprise that the EPA has a fraction of the staff and resources it once had,” he said. “We have some serious water pollution problems in the region, and federal stormwater regulation is a sector that has not been getting the attention it deserves.”
A spokesman for the EPA’s New England division declined to comment for this story but pointed out that the agency has a monitoring program to ensure people follow the Clean Water Act.
In a statement, the agency said it “prioritizes our enforcement efforts on cases that result in the most significant protection for human health and the environment.”
The lawsuits by CLF and other environmental groups come as the federal government tightens rules on stormwater discharges. It requires cities and towns to perform advanced testing and monitoring of rainfall, which environmentalists say is polluted before it washes into local waterways.
Municipal leaders complain that they face millions of dollars in costs to comply with the regulations.
Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states — including New Hampshire, New Mexico and Idaho — that still leave authority over local sewer and stormwater systems to the EPA. The federal government has overseen the state’s water pollution controls for more than 40 years.
Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has pitched having the state Department of Environmental Protection take over that responsibility. State oversight, he argues, would ease the financial burden on local governments.
Environmental groups oppose the move. They say the state doesn’t have enough resources to handle pollution control, especially in light of cuts that have curtailed spending on environmental departments. Also, they could face political pressure to ease regulations.
To be sure, the Conservation Law Foundation has also targeted larger polluters — and even the environmental regulators, themselves.
In 1983, the group sued the Boston Water and Sewer Commission for failing to prevent polluted runoff from storm drains and illegal sewer connections that threatened the city’s rivers, including the Charles, Mystic and Neponset, and water at harbor beaches.
In February, it sued the EPA for its failure to implement stormwater pollution standards in the Charles River watershed.
Last month, it filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, arguing that the oil and gas company is violating several water regulations at a 110-acre Boston storage and transfer facility in Everett, located on the banks of the Mystic River.
But the marina and scrap yard lawsuits raise questions about whether the group is targeting businesses more likely to settle.
“Challenging these lawsuits in federal court can get costly,” said Richard “Chip” Nylen, a Boston attorney who has represented about 10 business owners against CLF lawsuits. Most of the cases have been settled out of court.
“Small businesses can’t afford it,” he said.
In Massachusetts, at least one other group is using CLF’s template to file citizen’s cases to enforce the Clean Water Act. A Washington, D.C.-based group, Clean Water Action, has filed several cases against scrap metal businesses — most in central and western end of the state.
Nylen said Congress ceded too much power to third parties to enforce stormwater rules when it updated the Clean Water Act in 1993.
“Congress is the one that really created this problem,” he said. “The federal government is the one who should be enforcing it.”
Portside Marine Services in Danvers and Fred J. Dion Yacht Club settled lawsuits costing them thousands, according to documents.
Portside owner Peter Bramberg said he supports efforts to protect the rivers and harbors, but he questions the aggressive tactics.
“While we have a great deal of respect for CLF and their mission to protect the environment, we hope that in the future they are more focused on using their resources on companies that are actually polluting our valuable lands and waterways,” he said.
Perley, who has spent more than $30,000 on legal and engineering fees, is digging in for a fight against the group.
He said a preliminary study of his property along the Rowley River determined he doesn’t need a stormwater permit.
“I’m not backing down,” Perley said. “If this keeps going, I will likely have to shut down. So I have no choice but to fight it.”
Christian Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.