District Court Invokes Burford Abstention and Primary Jurisdiction Doctrines to Dismiss RCRA Citizen Suit


The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma has dismissed the Sierra Club’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) citizen suit, filed against several oil and gas producers seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The District Court invoked the Burford abstention doctrine (Burford v. Sun Oil Co.) and primary jurisdiction doctrine to step away from this case, dismissing the RCRA citizen suit without prejudice. The case is Sierra Club v. Chesapeake Operating, LLC, et al.

Sierra Club alleged that the deep well injection of liquid waste from oil and gas exploration and production activities has contributed to a very large increase in the number of earthquakes experienced in Oklahoma and southern Kansas. In its complaint, Sierra Club argues that these operations and activities present an imminent and substantial threat to public health or the environment, a situation that is subject to the relief that can be granted pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 6972 (a)(1)(B).

However, the District Court notes that a state agency, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC), in accordance with the regulatory powers delegated to the agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act, has been diligently engaged in developing a vigorous and aggressive response to the injection well question, and therefore the District Court, relying on the Burford abstention and primary jurisdiction doctrines, dismissed Sierra Club’s RCRA complaint without prejudice.

Under the Burford abstention doctrine, federal courts sitting in equity will abstain from asserting federal jurisdiction if it is necessary to protect a complex state administrative process from undue federal influence. The exercise of federal jurisdiction in this case “would be disruptive of state efforts to establish a coherent policy with respect to a matter of substantial public concern.” With respect to the “primary jurisdiction” doctrine, the District Court describes this as a determination that administrative agencies are more nimble and better equipped than the courts to handle particular questions, and that “referral of appropriate questions to an agency ensures [a] desirable uniformity of results.” The District Court  concluded that monitoring and regulating the wastewater discharge practices by innumerable producers spread across thousands of square miles is a much more appropriate task for the OCC than a federal district court.