The river pollution dilemma emerged as Victorian England’s increasing urbanization and sanitary reforms led to the disposal of urban waste and effluvia into the rivers of the surrounding countryside. Since English nuisance law protected the rights of downstream riparian landowners from nuisance caused by those upstream, the enjoyment of lands and rivers by a few private individuals was brought into conflict with the sanitation and public health of urban inhabitants. As a Northampton commissioner framed the dilemma: “is it not better that one family should suffer a nuisance [from sewage pollution] than that half Northampton should be poisoned?” (p. 39). The polluting towns’ defense that their actions were in the public interest was not an arguable defense in law, and the Court of Chancery generally held the towns liable for the environmental pollution.
However, that is not where the story ends. In this well-researched book, Leslie Rosenthal examines ten legal conflicts over river pollution, and shows how judges balanced the formal upholding of the law with the management of the nuisance. While the polluters were held liable for causing the nuisance, in none of the case studies was a town’s sewer outlets physically stopped by the courts. Instead, the court took on a supervisory role on the process of abating the nuisance by ordering injunctions, but not actually enforcing them until a certain date, thus allowing the towns the time to adjust their sewers’ outflows. An important theme of the book is that the existing nuisance law was ill-equipped as a protector of the environment, as complainants could be paid compensation or sewage could be diverted, which solved the legal case but did not actually address the pollution itself. In addition, the technological options for treating the sewage were limited at the time. As a result, Rosenthal argues, the cases in which the court induced a town to reduce the nuisance of its pollution should be considered a success “worthy of celebration” (p. 231).