Ninth Circuit Rejects Environmental Groups’ RCRA Claims Against Railyard Operators


The Ninth Circuit has affirmed the dismissal of claims by environmental groups attempting to characterize air emissions from California railyards as “disposal” of waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). 

In 2011, a coalition of environmental groups led by the NRDC filed a complaint in federal district court in Los Angeles alleging that particulate emissions associated with diesel locomotives at railyards in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties violated RCRA because those emissions constitute “disposal” of waste, and are therefore subject to the statute, which governs the disposal of solid and hazardous waste. The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint, concluding that the Clean Air Act, and not RCRA, applies to the emissions from the railyards.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal in an opinion dated August 20, 2014. The court’s opinion cited the plain meaning of the RCRA statute—which excludes “emitting” from its definition of “disposal”—as well as the statute’s legislative history, which the court characterized as demonstrating an intent “to reduce the volume of waste that ends up in our nation's landfills.”

In reaching this conclusion, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ invitation to fill a “gap” in the statutory scheme for regulating air emissions from railyards, concluding that the particular emissions alleged to originate from the railyards are “indirect sources” of air pollutants that “fall entirely outside the ambit of federal regulation.”  The court did, however, note that diesel locomotives are regulated under EPA regulations implementing the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, and that states may regulate indirect sources such as railyards through provisions of State Implementation Plans (SIPs) adopted under the Clean Air Act. 

The Ninth Circuit’s decision, Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice et al. v. BNSF Railway Co. et al., Case No. 12-56086, is available here.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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