Courts Narrow Citizen Suit Potential

Posted on February 18, 2016 by Donald Shandy

Citizen suits under federal environmental laws have been under fire through criticism of “sue and settle” where agencies, in particular the U.S. EPA, have been accused of intentionally relinquishing statutory discretion for the sake of settling lawsuits without participation by affected third parties.  From this perspective, the scope of citizen suits has broadened.  However, two recent federal circuit court opinions curb this growth. 

On January 6, 2016, the Third Circuit and Sixth Circuit Courts of Appeals issued opinions that underscore certain limitations in the citizen suit provisions.  The Third Circuit examined a Clean Air Act citizen suit in Group Against Smog and Pollution, Inc. v. Shenango Inc. (No. 15-2041) (GASP). The Sixth Circuit examined a Clean Water Act citizen suit in Askins v. Ohio Dept. of Agriculture, Ohio Envtl. Prot. Agency, U.S. EPA (No. 15-3147). Both courts affirmed dismissal of the citizen suits by the district courts based on statutory limitations Congress placed in each statute.

These two cases highlight a couple of important components of citizen suits.  First, citizen suits are to serve as a backup to the non-discretionary functions and enforcement responsibilities of the States and the EPA.  As the U.S. Supreme Court has said, “the citizen suit is meant to supplement rather than to supplant governmental action.”  The Sixth Circuit stated, “Paradoxically, [Plaintiffs’] expansive reading of the citizen-suit provision would grant citizen greater enforcement authority than the U.S. EPA. . . . Congress did not intend to give citizens greater and faster enforcement authority against a state than the U.S. EPA.” 

The other important component highlighted is the role of the “diligent prosecution bar” against citizen suits.  Citizen suits are prohibited if the EPA or State agency “has commenced and is diligently prosecuting” the matter.  While most courts seem willing to restrict citizen suits when there is clear prosecution (civil or criminal) in a state or federal court, the answer is less clear when there is no active or concluded matter at the courthouse or the enforcement action is only administrative. In GASP, the Third Circuit slightly tilted the bar in favor of the agency and regulated entity by concluding that if the agency has diligently prosecuted a suit, the presence of a final judgment, consent decree, or consent order and agreement would likely prevent a citizen suit challenge.  This is logical given that environmental enforcement proceedings that are filed in court often, if not always, result in a judicially enforceable consent decree or consent order and agreement in which the regulated entity must fulfill specified obligations or be subject to stipulated penalties. It also provides certainty to the agreement reached between the agency and the regulated entity, which benefits all involved. 

While these recent decisions were not momentous court opinions, the Third and Sixth Circuits did provide a bit more clarity to the role citizen and how our environmental laws are enforced.  In this arena, I think we all would agree that a little clarity can go a long way.

DONALD TRUMP AND THE 18 POINT SOURCES

Posted on July 7, 2015 by Michael Gerrard

Since he's much in the news these days, I thought I'd share this story about an encounter of Donald Trump with the Clean Water Act.

Back in 1919, Eugene Meyer (a chairman of the Federal Reserve, the first president of the World Bank, publisher of the Washington Post, and father of Katherine Graham) built a palatial mansion on a 230-acre property in Westchester County, New York (about 40 miles north of New York City) known as Seven Springs. Eventually the property fell into disuse, and in 1996 Trump bought it so that he could build a luxury golf course there, with the mansion as the clubhouse. The land straddled the extremely affluent towns of Bedford, North Castle and New Castle, so those towns' zoning approval was needed.  It was adjacent to Byram Lake, which serves as the drinking water reservoir for the much less affluent Village of Mount Kisco.  More than one-third of its population is Hispanic.

Crabgrass and dandelions, of course, would be utterly unacceptable at a Trump golf course, so the plan involved the considerable application of pesticides.  Mount Kisco became very concerned that the stormwater runoff from the golf course flowing into Byram Lake would contaminate their drinking water. They hired me as their environmental counsel to see if Trump's plan could be stopped. Since none of the golf course was in Mount Kisco, the village had no direct authority. The town of New Castle gave Trump a hard time over traffic impacts, and he decided to give up plans to use that corner of the site for his project. Bedford and North Castle don't rely on Byram Lake for their water and weren't so concerned about the pesticides.

A close reading of the appendices to the environmental impact statement (when laid against state regulations) revealed that pesticide levels in the runoff could exceed drinking water standards under certain scenarios.  Trump proposed to address this problem through a novel technology called "linear adsorption systems" that would involve a carbon filtration unit at each of the 18 holes. The land would be graded so that the runoff went into these filtration units, which were supposed to remove the pesticides and discharge clean water into Byram Lake.

No such system had ever been built before, and we didn't know if it would work. We wanted it tested first. A local citizens group made up buttons saying "We're Not Trump's Guinea Pigs," with a drawing of a guinea pig and a red slash through it. The golf course didn't seem to require any state approvals, but I was able to convince the state environmental department that capturing the runoff, treating it, and discharging it through pipes had the effect of converting a sheet flow into point sources, requiring NPDES permits for each discharge point. This afforded us the opportunity to get a public hearing before the state regulators (in which we packed a high school auditorium with Mount Kisco residents worried about their drinking water), and then an adjudicatory hearing at which we pressed the need for a pilot test of the treatment system.

The hearing led to a decision that a pilot test was needed. We then entered into protracted administrative adjudication over the parameters of the pilot test.

All this went on for eight years. Finally, in 2004, Trump gave up the idea of the golf course and decided instead to build a small number of large single-family homes. That residential project involved far less use of pesticides than a golf course, and Mount Kisco was satisfied with it. The NY Daily News covered the story with the headline, "Trump 'Fires' Plan for New Golf Course Over Community Pesticide Concerns."

The local approval process for the homes took many more years, and was punctuated by litigation with the Nature Conservancy over an access easement.  Trump now has his approvals but construction of the homes has not yet begun. The property has been mostly idle during all this time, except that in 2009 he rented a portion of the land to some tenants from the Middle East, until it turned out that the tenants planned to erect tents to be used by Muammar el-Quaddafi while he was In New York for a United Nations meeting. When Bedford learned of this, they issued a stop work order because one can't erect a tent in Bedford without a permit, and Quaddafi never visited.

In the end, the environmental impact review process and the Clean Water Act did their jobs, the people of Mount Kisco still enjoy clean drinking water, and the occasional dandelion still pokes its head through the grass. And, notwithstanding all of this, Donald Trump tells us that he is still really, really rich.

Do Air Emissions Constitute Disposal of Solid Waste? The 9th Circuit's Answer is "No".

Posted on August 27, 2014 by Karen Crawford

On August 20, 2014 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Center For Community Action and Environmental Justice; East Yard Communities For Environmental Justice; Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. BNSF Railway Company; Union Pacific Railroad Company, No. 12-56086, D.C. No. 2:11-cv-08608-SJO-SS, determining that emissions of diesel particulate matter does not constitute "disposal" of solid waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).  As a result, plaintiffs could not state a plausible claim for relief under RCRA’s Citizens’ Suit provision, 42 U.S.C. §6972(a)(1)(B). 

A number of environmental organizations had sought to enjoin the emission from defendants' rail yards of particulate matter found in diesel exhaust from locomotive, truck, and other heavy-duty vehicle engines operated on or near 16 rail yards in California.  Plaintiffs cited studies by both EPA and the state agency, which identified diesel particulate matter as a toxic air contaminant with the potential or likelihood "to cause cancer and other adverse health problems, including respiratory illnesses and increased risk of heart disease."  Plaintiffs contended that, while the particulate emissions were initially emitted into the air, they ultimately were deposited on land and water.  They argued that people inhale the exhaust while it is airborne and after deposition (because the particulates are "re-entrained" into the air by wind, air currents, and passing vehicles).  Defendants moved to dismiss arguing that RCRA only applies to air emissions from burning fuel which itself consists of or contains "solid" or hazardous" waste, i.e. a "discarded material."  Otherwise, emissions fall within the scope of the Clean Air Act, which, they argued, was inapplicable. 

The district court concluded that (1) any gap that might exist between the two regulatory schemes as they apply (or don't apply) to mobile sources of air pollution "was created through a series of reasoned and calculated decisions by Congress and EPA," and, independently, (2) plaintiffs failed to state a claim under RCRA because, even if RCRA does apply, diesel exhaust is not a "solid or hazardous waste." 

In affirming, the appeals court cited (and distinguished) prior case law, but for the most part relied on the plain language of the statutes and pertinent legislative history of Congressional actions (or intentional inaction) related to regulation of mobile sources of diesel exhausts and rail yards.  Relying on the principle of expressio unius est exclusio alterius (when Congress expresses meaning through a list, a court may assume that what is not listed is excluded), the court of appeals noted that "emitting" is excluded from the definition in RCRA of "disposal."  Citing §6903(3), the court of appeals added that the specific statutory text further limits the definition of "disposal" to "placement" of solid waste "into or on any land or water" and concluded that emitting the exhaust into the air does not equate to placing the exhaust into or on any land or water. The 9th Circuit concluded that to decide otherwise would be rearranging the wording of the statute which courts cannot do.  Specifically, the court of appeals held, "Reading §6903(3) as Congress has drafted it, ‘disposal’ does not extend to emissions of solid waste directly into the air." 

The 9th Circuit might have stopped there, but it did not  The Court of Appeals further supported its decision by (1) recognizing that the term "emitting" was used elsewhere in the statute and, therefore, was intentionally excluded from the definition of "disposal," and (2) reviewing the legislative history and determining that Congress had opted not to address diesel emissions from locomotives, heavy-duty trucks, and buses at various points in the history of the Clean Air Act amendments adopted in 1970. It also noted that a railroad emissions study required during the planning of a 1977 Clean Air Act overhaul (only one year after enactment of RCRA) omitted rail yards and mobile sources and resulted in a prohibition of federal regulation of "indirect sources" that included corridors attracting mobile sources, like roads or highways, leaving regulation of those sources entirely to the states. The opinion also discussed later amendments to the Clean Air Act, finding that in the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act, Congress finally required EPA to promulgate regulations setting forth standards applicable to emissions from new locomotives and new engines used in locomotives and prohibited states from doing the same, but left the regulation of indirect sources including rail yards, exclusively to the states, noting that, once again, in 1990, RCRA applied to neither. 

The court  of appeals was not persuaded by plaintiffs' argument that the two statutes should be "harmonized" to fill any gaps, or that there was irreconcilable conflict between the two statutes, observing that in actuality no conflict existed because neither statute applied to rail yards' diesel exhausts.  But to put an exclamation point on its holding, the 9th Circuit added: “[H]owever, to the extent that its text is ambiguous, RCRA's statutory and legislative histories resolve that ambiguity.”

The 9th Circuit's straightforward analysis of the plain language of the statutes and the  statutory history of Congressional action in this opinion is a refreshing contrast to recent opinions in which courts have struggled to find justification for EPA's attempts to regulate in areas where Congress has clearly failed to take action. 

Biting Less Than They Can Chew

Posted on June 26, 2014 by Kenneth Warren

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to evaluate the environmental effects of their proposed actions.  When a proposed action may cause significant environmental impacts, NEPA requires the agency to prepare an environmental impact statement that evaluates alternatives including measures to avoid or mitigate impacts.  The agency may not divide a single project into separate bites and find that each in isolation would not have a significant environmental impact.  Instead, regulations issued by the Council on Environmental Quality require the agency’s environmental review to encompass connected actions and similar actions.

In Delaware Riverkeeper Network v. FERC, Texas Eastern Pipeline Company sought certificates of public convenience from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) authorizing construction and operation of the Northeast Upgrade Project, one of four projects to improve the Eastern Leg of a natural gas pipeline known as the 300 Line.  FERC evaluated the Northeast Upgrade project separately from the others on the ground that each project was designed to provide natural gas to different customers pursuant to different contracts within different time frames.  FERC concluded that the potential environmental impacts were not significant and terminated its evaluation by issuing a finding of no significant impact.  Environmental organizations petitioned for review of the FERC action on the ground that the four pipeline projects were interrelated and cumulatively would, in their view, clear hundreds of forest acres, fragment habitat and adversely impact wetlands and groundwater in significant ways.  

On review, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held that FERC’s segmented environmental review failed to meet NEPA’s requirements.  The Court reasoned that all four projects involved the construction of a single, physically interdependent pipeline, were undertaken in a close time frame and were financially interdependent.  No customer was a customer of a single pipeline segment and no logical justification existed for the choice of where one project ended and the next began.  Accordingly, the Court remanded the case to FERC to review the pipeline project as a whole, including its cumulative impacts.

FERC now faces the daunting task of determining how to implement the Court’s holding in other situations.  To be sure, in many cases FERC will be able to readily ascertain whether projects involving a single pipeline are physically, financially and temporally interdependent.  But in some areas of the country, transmission pipelines are being installed contemporaneously with natural gas wells, gathering lines physically connecting these wells to the transmission pipelines, and supporting roads, impoundments and other infrastructure.  Whether these arguably related projects are sufficiently connected or similar to trigger joint NEPA review may turn on whether they involve different ownership, distinct functions, separate financing and customers and clear physical divisions.  Resolving these questions may be no easy task, and even then does not necessarily determine whether a full environmental impact statement must be prepared.  When performing an environmental assessment of multiple projects together, FERC may still conclude that the environmental effects are insignificant.  With so many steps in the analysis that may be controversial, a new wave of NEPA challenges is likely on the horizon.

One postscript for practitioners before the D.C. Circuit.  In a punchy concurring opinion, Judge Silberman expressed his dismay at the submission of a brief “laden with obscure acronyms.”  For those of us in the environmental bar for whom use of acronyms has become second nature, beware.