COOPERATIVE FEDERALISM AND THE CLEAN AIR ACT ENCOUNTER TURBULENCE

Posted on December 14, 2012 by William Session

All of us know that enforcement of the Clean Air Act’s (CAA) proscriptions against pollutant air emissions is premised on the concept of Acooperative federalism.  We know that the CAA’s policy development and enforcement regime is based upon a division of state and federal regulatory responsibility.  Stated simply, the concept is that the federal government, through the EPA, sets standards for permissible emissions of substances affecting ambient air quality while individual states retain responsibility for implementing programs to enforce these standards. 

The States’ implementation mechanisms are aptly titled State Implementation Plans or SIPs.  SIPs are employed to demonstrate that federal and state air pollution regulations will allow counties in a particular state to meet federally mandated ambient air quality standards (NAAQS).  The SIP process approval results in pollution control requirements which govern and often times unduly complicate compliance efforts of state regulators.  They can also increase compliance costs borne by the regulated community.  One aspect of that conundrum is the fact that when States fail to meet deadlines for attaining these standards, the regulators themselves can face sanctions from EPA and even suits by the public.  Litigation and its costs complicate matters further.

As some regulators in Pennsylvania recently observed . . . [T]he current aggressive schedules for NAAQS reviews, State Implementation Plan (SIP) development and promulgation of Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards are significant problems. Taken together, these inefficiencies are a resource drain on EPA, the states, the regulated community and the economy as a whole.  The messy situation described in this quote is the subject of this blog.

The turbulence inherent in this divided relationship has escalated in recent times fraying the long-standing statutory regulatory compact between the federal government and the States.   

An instructive example of the conflict of enforcement concept and reality engendered by the CAA’s cooperative federalism scheme was clearly highlighted in the recent case WildEarth Guardians v. Jackson.  This case dealt with EPA’s delays in approving SIPs or pollution control plans affecting discharges of fine particulate matter or PM2.5.  The plaintiffs in Wild Earth alleged that EPA failed to take final action under section 110(k)(2) and (3) of the CAA to approve SIP submittals in twenty (20) states meeting applicable requirements respecting the 2006 PM2.5NAAQS. 

In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia had found that EPA’s PM2.5 NAAQS had to change because it failed to adequately protect human health.  A change in this NAAQS required a change in States SIPs.  SIPs were proposed but languished at EPA.  Five years later, the plaintiffs in Wild Earth alleged that . . . [W]ithout infrastructure plans, citizens are not afforded full protection against the harmful effects of PM2.5 while seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.
 
Shortly after the suit was filed the plaintiffs and the EPA entered into a settlement. A consent decree called for the EPA to approve or disapprove SIP submittals for the 2006 PM2.5 standard as early as September 12, 2012 for some of the states involved and as late as February 13, 2013 for others.  The Consent Decree was entered and the case dismissed in May of 2012.  Case closed and compliance efforts back on track? 

Unfortunately, many of the underlying issues raised in Wild Earth, specifically, the lack of cooperation between the States and the federal government on implementation of the PM2.5 NAAQS have raged on unabated.  For example, eleven (11) states sued the EPA over the agency’s alleged failure to promulgate final NAAQS for PM2.5.  In New York v. Jackson the plaintiffs are seeking a declaration that EPA is in violation of Section 109(d)(1) requesting that EPA review, propose and promulgate a new PM2.5 NAAQS.  On June 14, 2012, EPA announced a proposal to strengthen the NAAQS PM2.5.  Almost simultaneously, the D.C. Circuit issued an order refusing to set a schedule for EPA to issue a new PM2.5 NAAQS. Am.Farm Bureau v. EPA.

These developments will inevitably spawn additional delays in PM2.5 related SIP modifications and EPA approvals. That is the point of these comments on this small corner of CAA regulation and enforcement.  Is the cooperative federalism underpinning of the CAA still workable?  Can court’s recognize and respect the concept when regulatory policy, administrative lethargy and real human health concerns collide? These comments and observations have focused on the PM2.5 issue mainly because it has come up in some recent work in our office. 

Without doubt other and more far-reaching examples of regulatory and judicial “turbulence abound, i.e., the raging fight over the EPA’s Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR).  In a dissenting opinion on the CSAPR case, on the concept of cooperative federalism, Judge Rogers had this to say. . . [T] he result is an unsettling of the consistent precedent of this court strictly enforcing jurisdictional limits, a redesign of Congress’s vision of cooperative federalism between the states and the federal government in implementing the Clean Air Act based on the court’s own notions of absurdity and logic that are unsupported by a factual record, and a trampling on this court’s precedent on which the Environmental Protection Agency was entitled to rely . . . .  Whew! 

So what are CAA practitioners to make of the mess Judge Rogers eloquently describes?  This blog entry offers no practical guidance for those laboring for an aggrieved client nor laments a bad result impairing enforcement prerogatives of the regulators.  Instead, I only point out that it may be time for a concerted effort to step back and reconsider whether the CAA’s cooperative federalism’s bifurcation of rule promulgation and enforcement continues to make scientific, policy or common sense in today’s world.

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