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. 



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