Special Topics in Environmental Management

Judge Orders EPA to Meet State Landfill Plan Deadlines

A federal district court judge ordered the EPA to approve or disapprove plans states have submitted to implement the Agency’s Emission Guidelines and Compliance Times for Municipal Solid Waste Landfills. The complaint against the Agency was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by eight states that argued that the Agency has missed its statutory deadlines for both approving the state plans and promulgating a backup federal implementation plan (FIP) that is to be imposed on any state that does not have an approved plan.
Landfill
The EPA did not dispute that it failed to meet the deliverable dates for both the state plans and the FIP. However, the Agency argued that the states did not have standing to sue. In addition, the EPA disagreed with the timetables the plaintiffs asked the court to impose on the Agency and requested alternative deadlines. Judge Haywood S. Gilliam’s order included what he described as “feasible” mandatory deadlines.

Methane and Other Pollutants

Landfills in the United States emit nearly 30 different organic hazardous air pollutants, including methane, which, after carbon dioxide, is the most consequential greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. As required by the Clean Air Act (CAA), the Agency’s 2016 emissions guidelines prescribed regulations that set a procedure under which each state is required to submit to the EPA a plan that establishes standards of performance to meet those guidelines. The plan must also include the state’s strategy for regulatory enforcement. As required by the CAA and the EPA’s own regulations:

  • States were required to submit implementation plans by May 30, 2017.
  • The EPA was required to approve or disapprove submitted plans by September 30, 2017.
  • In the event that either states did not submit implementation plans or the EPA disapproved a submitted plan, the Agency was required to promulgate a federal plan by November 30, 2017.

As of the May 6, 2019, date of Gilliam’s order, the EPA had neither approved nor disapproved of any submitted plans nor promulgated a federal plan.

Standing

According to the EPA, the complaint lacked standing because the states failed to demonstrate a sufficient causal connection between the Agency’s inaction and the alleged injuries to the states’ sovereign interests and also because the states did not demonstrate that a favorable decision by the court would redress those injuries.

In rejecting these arguments, Gilliam cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, which indicated that the states are “entitled to special solicitude in [the] standing analysis.” Gilliam points out that it was “of considerable relevance” to the Supreme Court “that the party seeking review [was] a sovereign State and not . . . a private individual” because “states are not normal litigants for the purposes of invoking federal jurisdiction.”

“And just as Congress afforded Massachusetts a right to challenge EPA’s decision not to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, Congress afforded the State Plaintiffs here the right to challenge EPA’s failure to perform its nondiscretionary duties,” Gilliam continued.

Deadlines

The judge recognized the EPA’s clear failure to meet its nondiscretionary duties.

“But that alone does not dictate deadlines,” he wrote. “The Court is now faced with the question of feasibility. And nothing about past recalcitrance in any practical sense changes the feasibility of timelines moving forward. To be sure, EPA’s delinquency means that it has an especially heavy burden of showing infeasibility. But recalcitrance does not render feasible what is otherwise infeasible.”

The dates requested by the litigating parties and the dates ordered by the judge are as follows:

  • Approve or disapprove existing state plans. States requested that this be completed in 30 days; the EPA requested 4 to 12 months. The judge ordered completion in 4 months.
  • Promulgate a federal plan. States requested that this be completed within 5 months; the EPA requested 12 months. The judge ordered completion in 6 months.
  • File a status report with the court. The states requested that reports be filed every 60 days. The judge’s order does not indicate that the EPA offered an alternative to this request. However, the Agency did ask the court to deny the states’ requests for imposition of deadlines for future state plans. The judge ordered the EPA to file status reports with the Court every 90 days, beginning August 5, 2019, detailing EPA’s progress in complying with the order.

Gilliam’s order in State of California, et al. v. EPA is available to read here.