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By Lisa M. Campbell and James V. Aidala

On May 8, 2015, in El Comite Para El Bienestar De Earlimart v. EPA, a Panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied a petition for review filed by several groups that the court describes as “community organizations” who challenged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2012 approval of California State Implementation Plan (SIP) elements under the Clean Air Act (CAA), including its related approval of certain fumigant regulations.  This challenge was previously discussed in our blog post "Ninth Circuit to Consider Civil Rights Issue in Review of California SIP".

Of particular interest in the case is the contention before the court that “EPA failed to secure necessary assurances from California that its proposed rules would not violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by exposing Latino schoolchildren to a disparate impact from pesticide use.”  The court rejected this and other contentions by the community groups.  

The court’s findings with regard to the alleged Civil Rights violation state a standard that appears to defer greatly to EPA and its review of the record.  More specifically, the court found with regard to the claimed Civil Rights Act violation that “EPA explained that this evidence failed to draw any connection between the proposed rules and a potential disparate impact,” and that EPA “fulfilled its duty to provide a reasoned judgment because its determination was cogently explained and supported by the record.”

By way of background with regard to the Civil Rights Act claim, the petitioners argued that EPA’s determination that California provided assurances that no federal or state law prohibits the SIP approval was arbitrary and capricious because EPA failed to consider evidence claimed to support a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.  This claim rested on an EPA finding of a Title VI violation in connection with an earlier administrative complaint, referred to as the Angelita C. complaint, which was filed with the EPA Office of Civil Rights in 1999.  There, Latino parents and schoolchildren alleged that schools with high percentages of Latino children were disparately affected by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s (DPR) renewal of the registration for methyl bromide, a fumigant pesticide.  EPA concluded in that action that there was support for “a preliminary finding of a prima facie Title VI violation,” and EPA and DPR entered a settlement agreement in 2011.

Petitioner argued that EPA’s findings in Angelita C., and evidence that it claimed to demonstrate that pesticide use had not gone down since EPA completed its original review, supported the claimed Title VI violations that are the subject of the Ninth Circuit petition, and further that EPA did not do enough to determine that California had satisfied its burden to provide assurances of compliance with federal law.  The Ninth Circuit decision states in this regard that the petitioner “effectively contends the EPA should have evaluated California’s assurances the same way the EPA would have to deal with a pending Title VI complaint setting forth allegations of a current violation.”

The court states:  “El Comite’s argument fails because it misconstrues the EPA’s burden regarding the ‘necessary assurances’ requirement.  The EPA has a duty to provide a reasoned judgment as to whether the state has provided ‘necessary assurances,’ but what assurances are ‘necessary’ is left to the EPA’s discretion.”  The court further found:  “El Comite provided no proof of a current or ongoing violation.  It merely provided evidence of the earlier violation, and pointed to continued pesticide use since that time.  The EPA explained that this evidence failed to draw any connection between the proposed rules and a potential disparate impact.  The EPA fulfilled its duty to provide a reasoned judgment because its determination was cogently explained and supported by the record.” 

The decision in this case is of significant interest to many who have been observing the emerging trends regarding environmental justice issues arising in connection with pesticide applications.  This concern may grow larger as EPA continues and expands its evaluations of the potential bystander risks from pesticide use, potentially leading to additional restrictions for certain pesticides in the future.