With EPA Concessions, NRDC Drops Landfill Emissions Lawsuit

The Environmental Protection Agency last week made significant concessions in a lawsuit by NRDC and our partners challenging EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s illegal suspension of rules curbing harmful emissions from landfills. EPA has conceded that its May 2017 stay of the landfill emissions standards had no practical effects and that all of the rules’ deadlines remain in place.

As a result, today NRDC and our partners are dropping our lawsuit and signing a joint agreement with EPA to dismiss the case. But make no mistake, we’re going to keep the pressure on EPA to protect public health, follow the law, and enforce these important limits on methane and other dangerous air pollutants that harm communities near landfills as well as our shared climate.

Last summer, NRDC, along with Clean Air Council, Clean Wisconsin, and Conservation Law foundation, filed a lawsuit asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to overturn EPA’s suspension of standards to reduce harmful air pollutants from municipal solid waste landfills. These two rules—issued by the Obama administration—will significantly reduce emissions of landfill gas, a nasty mixture produced by the decomposition of waste that includes methane, carbon dioxide, hazardous air pollutants, and volatile organic compounds that contribute to smog.

Back in May 2017, Pruitt issued a 90-day stay of the landfill rules on grounds that industry was not given a fair chance to comment on technical issues during the previous administration. In our brief we showed that every issue Pruitt cited could have been—and, in fact, was—raised during the public comment period. We also  made the case that Pruitt’s stay of the landfill standards was identical to his illegal suspension of common sense safeguards against leaks of methane from the oil and gas industry—which the D.C. Circuit struck down in July 2017 in Clean Air Council v. Pruitt.

In the landfill standards case, we were concerned that even after the 90-day stay expired on August 29, 2017, it had the effect of delaying a whole series of deadlines: for states to submit implementation plans; for EPA to approve or disapprove those plans and impose a federal plan on states that failed to submit an approvable plan; and for industry to install pollution controls. An EPA spokesperson even told states and regulated sources not to concern themselves with compliance because EPA did not “plan to prioritize the review of these state plans” and was not “working to issue a Federal Plan for states that failed to submit a state plan.”

We argued that EPA had effectively turned a short-term unlawful stay into an unlimited delay in implementing these safeguards, and that because the stay was legally invalid the original compliance dates must remain in effect.

In a surprising response, EPA asserted that the original compliance dates did remain in effect—that state plans had been due on May 30, 2017, and that EPA had missed its own deadlines to review those plans in September 2017 and issue a federal plan in November 2017. EPA conceded that none of these deadlines, nor any future obligations for landfill owners or operators, was altered by the stay.

EPA’s brief was filed shortly after the Agency withdrew two proposals to extend the suspension of the landfill rules, which suggested that EPA may have recognized the legal vulnerability of the plan to continue delaying these requirements.

Now that EPA has withdrawn the proposed stay extensions and admitted that all the landfill rules’ deadlines remain in effect—and conceded that the Agency has missed its own deadlines—NRDC and our partners agreed to drop our case against the stay. And we had EPA sign an agreement stipulating each of these concessions, so they can’t go back on their word. But pollution standards and regulatory deadlines won’t accomplish much if the agency charged with protecting Americans from air pollution refuses to implement these safeguards. EPA must now meet its Clean Air Act obligations and enforce these rules, and NRDC and our allies will continue to hold them accountable.

About the Authors

Lissa Lynch

Staff Attorney, Federal Policy, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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