The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday, in the case Sierra Club v. EPA, that states can in fact supplement the emissions monitoring performed by the Environmental Protection Agency, vacating a rule established by the Bush administration in 2003. The relationships between state and federal environmental agencies have long been thorny, at times acrimonious, and the decision was a major blow to the EPA’s stated desire to maintain federal control over the enforcement of environmental policies.
Confusion over the federal and state mandates has plagued the regulatory agencies since the passage of the Clean Air Act. The monitoring of stationary polluters, such as power plants or factories, proved to be particularly complicated. In 1990, attempting to streamline the Act, Congress introduced a permit program for polluters, to be supervised by the EPA and implemented at the state level. The specifics, however, left room for interpretation, especially in the area of enforcement: who was responsible for issuing monitoring guidelines, and how would the EPA and the states resolve disagreements over their effectiveness?
Some states have argued that the EPA’s monitoring guidelines are not stringent enough, and would like to impose their own inspections. Initially, the EPA supported state monitoring, which was strongly opposed by industry leaders, and fought in court for rules to that effect. But, in 2002, the EPA abruptly changed course. The agency settled a case with an industry organization that had challenged its proposed pro-state monitoring rule by reversing its position, and instead amended the rule to prohibit state regulations.
In a 2-1 decision, the D.C. Circuit found that the rule impeded the implementation of the Clean Air Act, by preventing the enforcement of adequate permit monitoring. The dissenting judge, however, found that the federal monitoring guidelines meet the definition of “adequate.”
Carl Pope, head of the Sierra Club, gave a heartfelt statement after the decision, declaring it “a huge victory against one of the most egregious rollbacks of environmental protections in our nation’s history.”