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Ashoff v. City of Ukiah



Ashoff and other citizens sued the City of Ukiah (city) for injunctive relief, alleging that its solid waste disposal site violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA),[1] Clean Water Act (CWA),[2] and state law. The district court granted the city’s motion to dismiss the RCRA claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, concluding that RCRA did not authorize citizen suits “in federal court to enforce state regulations authorized under Subtitle D.”[3] Ashoff was therefore constricted to alleging violations of the federal minimum criteria in his complaint. Ashoff timely appealed the dismissal of the RCRA claims, and the Ninth Circuit held that RCRA authorized citizen suits for violations of federal minimum criteria for solid waste landfills, even after a state had adopted a permit program for landfills pursuant to federal criteria, but the statute did not authorize citizen suits based on state standards that were more stringent than federal minimum criteria.

Because lack of subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law, the court reviewed the claims de novo. The Ninth Circuit first affirmed that RCRA authorized citizen suits in authorized states based on the plain language of RCRA’s citizen suit provision which states, “any person may commence a civil action on his behalf . . . against any person . . . who is alleged to be in violation of any permit, standard, regulation, condition, requirement, prohibition, or order which has become effective pursuant to this chapter.”[4] Therefore, if state standards become effective pursuant to RCRA, or, for example, are part of an authorized state program, a citizen can sue in federal court to enforce the standard. In this case, California had created such a program, which was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1993. In some cases federal regulations give states the option of establishing an alternative measure to meet the federal criteria,[5] and EPA has endorsed citizen suits brought under RCRA for noncompliance with the state selected alternative.

The court then turned to the question of whether RCRA authorized citizen suits based on state standards that exceed the federal criteria, and the court concluded that it did not. First, based on statutory construction, to allow such suits would be inconsistent with the justification for RCRA citizen suits. By implementing the federal criteria, a state’s standards become effective pursuant to RCRA and therefore are subject to citizens suing under RCRA. In contrast, RCRA does not authorize suits for violations of state standards that are more stringent than the federal criteria, because such standards do not become effective pursuant to RCRA. The legal effect of such standards flow from state law; therefore, federal court is not an appropriate forum to hear claims regarding their violation.

The court considered two arguments advanced by Ashoff. First, Ashoff argued that other environmental statutes such as the CWA and Clean Air Act (CAA)[6] set up a similar relationship between the state and federal government, and that under each of those statutes citizens can sue on the basis of more stringent state standards.[7] However, the court differentiated the two statutes from RCRA. Unlike RCRA, the CWA explicitly requests that states create more stringent standards[8] and then specifically incorporates such orders issued by a state[9] and state permit programs[10] into the citizen suit provision. The CAA also explicitly mentions state orders[11] as well as standards created by a state permit program[12] in its citizens suit provision.

Ashoff also argued that limiting claims to those based on the federal minimum criteria would allow landfill owners to defeat RCRA citizen suits because they could argue in every case that the state standard was more stringent. However, the court felt that such a result would be unlikely and deemed such considerations insufficient to overcome the legally correct interpretation of the statute. The Ninth Circuit then buttressed its conclusion with policy considerations, including the desire to avoid inappropriately interfering with state sovereignty. The court noted that the state statute upon which Ashoff based his suit did not allow citizen suits, but instead, required that citizens pursue their grievances through administrative procedures. Therefore, the court concluded that allowing citizens to bring suit in federal court would not only limit the flexibility of states to choose the forum for enforcement of their laws, but it might also chill states from adopting more stringent standards under RCRA. Based on these policy considerations as well as statutory interpretation, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision to dismiss the RCRA claim.

[1]42 U.S.C. §§ 6901‑6992k (1994).

[2]33 U.S.C. §§ 1251‑1387 (1994).

[3]Ashoff v. City of Ukiah, 130 F.3d 409, 410 (9th Cir. 1997).

[4]42 U.S.C. § 6972(a)(1)(A) (1994).

[5]For instance, federal regulations require that landfill owners or operators must cover disposed solid waste with six inches of earthen material at the end of each day, but in an approved state, the state can establish an alternative cover if the owner can demonstrate that it functions as well as the six inches of earthen material. 40 C.F.R. § 258.21(a)-(b) (1997).

[6]42 U.S.C. §§ 7401-7671 (1994).

[7]In Northwest Environmental Advocates v. City of Portland, the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that citizens have standing under the CWA to enforce permit conditions based on both EPA-promulgated effluent limitations and state-established standards. 56 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir. 1995).

[8]33 U.S.C. § 1311(b)(1)(C) (1994).

[9]Id. § 1365(a)(1).

[10]Id. § 1365(f)(6).

[11]42 U.S.C. § 7604(a)(1) (1994).

[12]Id. § 7604(f)(4).

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