Posted on July 31, 2019
On July 2, 2019, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a petition brought by an environmental group for review of EPA’s Transfer-Based Exclusion for secondary hazardous materials in California Communities Against Toxics v. EPA (D.C. Cir. July 2, 2019) (No. 18-1163). The court found that “EPA did not act contrary to RCRA in adopting the Transfer-Based Exclusion because hazardous secondary materials are not necessarily ‘discarded’ each time they are transferred from a generator to a reclaimer along with payment”, and that “EPA has provided a reasoned explanation for applying different standards to materials that are not yet part of the waste disposal problem RCRA addresses where they meet conditions EPA concluded were adequate for safe transfer and legitimate recycling.” This is exclusion is set forth a 40 C.F.R. § 261.4(a)(24).
In 2008 EPA promulgated the Transfer-Based Exclusion, along with the Generator-Controlled Exclusion, to encourage and expand the safe, beneficial recycling of hazardous secondary materials when carried out in accordance with specified “legitimacy factors”. After challenges to the rule by both environmental and industry groups, EPA replaced the original Transfer-Based Exclusion with a new rule known as the Verified Recycler exclusion. This new rule was also challenged and was vacated in 2017 when the appellate court reinstated the original rule with requirements added in 2015 to cover emergency preparedness and containment. American Petroleum Institute v. EPA, 862 F. 3rd 50 (D.C. Cir. 2017). On rehearing, the court expanded the exclusion to cover spent refinery catalysts. American Petroleum Institute v. EPA, 883 F 3rd 918 (D.C. Cir. 2018). Later the same year, without further notice and comment, EPA published the Transfer-Based Exclusion as modified by the D.C. Circuit throughout the 10 years of challenges as a final rule entitled Response to Vacatur of Certain Provisions of the Definition of Solid Waste Rule, 83 Fed. Reg. 24,664 (May 30, 2018), resulting in another challenge and the July decision of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
While Petitioners did not contend that the act of transferring the waste or of reclamation constitute “discard,” they did contend that a generator’s payment to a reclaimer to accept such material necessarily indicated the material has negative value to the generator, and thus the transfer constitutes a means of getting rid of, or “discarding”, the material. RCRA does not define “discarded material” or address payment, but the court found precedent in its own prior decisions which foreclosed petitioners’ contention that payment is determinative of “discard”.
In particular, the court concluded that Congress had not directly resolved whether “discarded material” must include hazardous secondary materials that a generator paid a reclaimer to accept. It then moved to the question of whether EPA’s interpretation is “based on a permissible construction of the statue,” (i.e., whether or not it is the only permissible interpretation) and found support for EPA’s decision to equate legitimate recycling with lack of “discard”. The court noted that EPA had considered the payment to reclaimers issue and studied the market forces, and had determined there were various reasons for payments to recyclers, including lack of competition in recycling markets, cost savings compared to compliance with Subtitle C requirements, and the need for capital costs to develop and implement the necessary recycling infrastructure and market. The court concluded that instead of ignoring the relevance of the payment issue, EPA had addressed it in the Legitimacy Factors analysis but declined to make it dispositive, a permissible interpretation of “discard” that was not contrary to RCRA.
The court also concluded that EPA’s Transfer-Based Exclusion was not arbitrary and capricious as the conditions imposed under the exclusion ensure that the hazardous secondary materials do not end up in a landfill or incinerator but remain in a continuous stream or flow of production within industry processes, and they cover potential risks by requiring third-party reclaimers to handle them properly and safely and to not discard them. Those provisions address excessive accumulation, requiring reclamation of at least 75% of hazardous secondary materials that a reclaimer obtains over a calendar year. In addition, residuals must be managed in compliance with applicable regulations, including Subtitle C, when “discarded.” Because there is no statutory requirement that these conditions be identical to Subtitle C requirements, the court determined that EPA’s response was not arbitrary and capricious.
The court also reviewed EPA’s explanation for its changed position as to whether the Transfer-Based Exclusion’s restrictions and conditions were adequate. The court noted that recycling management and controls had improved over time due to enforcement and to generator audits of reclaimer performance and financial viability. As a result, EPA’s restrictions and conditions were found to be sufficient to ensure safe recycling activities.
The impact of this decision on the regulated community will depend on whether the Transfer-Based Exclusion, as modified by EPA in 2015, was incorporated into the state’s hazardous waste regulations, as well as the authorization status of the state; however, those states that delayed adoption of the rule, awaiting the final outcome of this long legal battle, now have clearer direction.
This thoughtful and practical opinion seems to provide EPA with a tutorial on promulgating a defensible regulation, and perhaps even a final answer on a long debated rule! This author would like to see EPA use the opinion as a template to try again with other important, but now vacated rules. How about a new comparable fuels rule?