The U.S. Court of Appeals or the District of Columbia has recently issued two important rulings on the Clean Air Act in particular and administrative law in general: California Communities Against Toxics, et al., v. EPA and Murray Energy Corporation v. EPA.
The Battle of the Memos: Seitz Makes Way for Wehrum
In the California Communities case, decided on August 20, 2019, the court held, in a 2 to 1 decision, that a petition to review a change in EPA policy announced in an agency memorandum which reversed an agency policy announced nearly 25 years ago in another agency memo must be rejected because the memo at issue was not a “final agency action” subject to the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). In 1995, the “Seitz Memo,” which interpreted Section 112 of the Clean Air Act and addresses the regulation and control of hazardous air pollutants from stationary sources, stated that once a source of toxic emissions is classified as “major,” the facility remains subject to regulation as a major source even if the facility makes changes to the facility to limit its potential to emit such toxics below the major source threshold. Then, in 2018 under a new administration, the “Wehrum Memorandum” was issued which reversed this policy and its interpretation of the law. (Both memos were issued without any kind of advance notice or opportunity to comment.) If a source takes steps to limit its potential to emit, then it may be regulated as an area source, and subject to less rigid regulation. The court majority held that the Wehrum Memo was not a final agency action and was not subject to judicial review when it was measured against both prongs of the “finality test” devised by the Supreme Court in the cases of Bennet v. Spear, 520 US 154 (1997) and US Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes, 136 S. Ct. 1807 (2016). While the memo undoubtedly represented the consummation of the agency’s decision-making process, the memo had no direct and appreciable legal consequences, and not therefore being a final action, the case must be dismissed. Judge Rogers filed a strong dissenting opinion.