Judge rules EPA must enforce 2016 landfill gas regulations

By Erin Voegele | May 07, 2019

A federal district court ruled April 6 that the U.S. EPA’s failure to implement and enforce a 2016 regulation limiting landfill methane emissions is unlawful. The ruling requires EPA to develop a federal plan within six months.

The lawsuit pertains to the EPA’s 2016 Emissions Guidelines and Compliance Times for Municipal Solid Waste Landfills. The regulation went into effect on Oct. 28, 2016, but the EPA has not implemented or enforced it. Rather, the agency said it planned to complete a reconsideration of the regulation by Spring 2020.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the California Air Resources Board led a coalition of eight attorneys general and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in the lawsuit challenging EPA’s inaction. The lawsuit was filed in May 2018. 

Information released by the California attorney general’s office indicates the court has ruled that given the role landfill emissions play in exacerbating climate change, the EPA’s failure to implement these regulations is unacceptable and a violation of the Clean Air Act. Under the ruling, the EPA is required to respond to all state plans already submitted within four months and to develop a federal plan within six months.

 “We celebrate this ruling requiring EPA to fulfill its long-overdue mandatory duties to control emissions from landfills,” Becerra said. “Noxious landfill emissions affect everyone, but disproportionately hurt our most vulnerable communities, impacting their health, environment, and standard of living. Once again, we’ve held the EPA accountable for its failure to perform its mandatory duties under the Clean Air Act, and for its unwillingness to protect public health.” 

On Aug. 29, 2016, the EPA finalized new source performance standards (NSPS) to reduce emissions of methane-rich landfill gas from new, modified and reconstructed municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills. In a separate action, the agency also issued revised guidelines for reducing emissions from existing MSW landfills. The new regulations updated standards and guidelines put into place in 1996.

Both rules consider a well-designed and well-operated landfill gas collection-and-control system as the best system of emission reduction for controlling landfill gas. In addition, both actions require affected landfills to install and operate a gas collection control system within 30 months after landfill gas emissions reach 34 metric tons of NMOC or more per year. The previous threshold was 50 metric tons.

The rules state landfill owners and operators may control gas through combustion for energy generation, or by using a treatment system that processes gas for sale or beneficial use. Gas can also be flared.

On May 23, 2017, the EPA announced a 90-day administrative stay of the two rules to allow the agency to reconsider certain aspects of these regulations. Specifically, the agency said it would reconsider six topics, including tier four surface emission monitoring, annual liquids reporting, corrective action timeline procedures, overlapping applicability with other rules, the definition of cover penetration and design plan approval.

Information currently posted to EPA’s website indicates the 90-day stay expired on Aug. 29, 2017. Therefore, the rules are currently in effect. “The EPA still intends to complete the reconsideration process granted by the administrator,” the agency said on its website. “EPA will continue to work with states and stakeholders as we develop a path forward on these separate but related actions.”

On Oct. 30, 2018, the agency issued a proposal to extend plan submission deadlines for the 2016 MSW emission guidelines in order to align state plan timing requirements with those proposed in the Affordable Clean Energy rule. A public comment period on the proposed rule close Dec. 14.