Harmon Industries v. Browner
191 F.3d 894 (8th Cir. 1999)

  • EPA has the authority to delegate responsibility to States for administering and enforcing the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
    • To qualify for delegation, States must satisfy EPA that they can operate the programs in a manner that meets all Federal requirements.
    • EPA retains supervisory authority, and can revoke the delegation at any time.
      • EPA never revokes authority though, since they they'd have to take over the job and it would cost them a lot of money.
    • EPA also had the authority to take enforcement action of its own when it does not believe that a State has adequately addressed a violation.
      • This is known as overfiling.
  • Harmon was manufacturing circuit boards. Turns out, employees had been dumping solvents into the soil behind the plant for 14 years without anybody noticing. When Harmon's management became aware of the dumping, they contacted the Missouri Dept. of Natural Resources (MDNR) and reported the RCRA violation.
  • In response, MDNR found that the dumping did not pose a threat to human health or the environment, and developed a plan whereby Harmon would clean up the disposal area.
    • Harmon asked MDNR to not enforce any monetary penalties.
    • MDNR brought the matter to the attention of EPA, who recommended an $800k penalty.
  • Meanwhile, EPA initiated an independent enforcement action and sought $2.3M in penalties.
  • While the EPA case was still pending, Harmon and MDNR entered a Missouri State Court and settled the case for $0.
  • When EPA's enforcement action came before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), the judge assessed a $586k penalty. Harmon appealed, claiming that they had already settled the case with MDNR.
  • The Environmental Appeals Board affirmed. Harmon appealed.
  • The Federal Trial Court overturned the penalty. EPA appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that EPA's decision to impose civil penalties violated RCRA and contravened the principles of res judicata.
      • The Trial Court looked at the plain language of RCRA (42 U.S.C. 6926) and found that it said that the State programs operated "in lieu of" the Federal program. Therefore Federal action was precluded if the State had been delegated the authority to act.
    • EPA unsuccessfully argued that they had authority to independently pursue enforcement as part of their overfiling authority.
      • EPA looked to 6928 which says that EPA just has to give notice if they want to go after a polluter in a delegated State. However, the Court found that could only initiate an enforcement action if the State decided not to take action. Here, the State did take action, it's just that EPA didn't like the result.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed, and declared the concept of overfiling to be unconstitutional.
    • The Appellate Court found that RCRA's statutory structure and principles of federalism preclude EPA from enforcing Missouri law.
    • The Appellate Court found that if EPA is dissatisfied with Missouri's enforcement practice, EPA's only recourse is to formally withdraw the State's authorization under RCRA.
  • Btw, the 10th Circuit specifically rejected this argument in United States v. Power Engineering Co. (3030 F.2d 1232 (10th Cir. 2002), and found that EPA does have the ability to overfile. Eventually this will get worked out by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • If EPA does not have overfiling authority, what's to stop individual States from luring business to their State by promising lax enforcement and minimal penalties for environmental violations?