On February 12, 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments in El Comite Para El Bienestar De Earlimart v. EPA, a case challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) approval of provisions in a State Implementation Plan (SIP) adopted by California under the Clean Air Act (CAA) that regulate emissions of pesticides (primarily fumigants like methyl bromide) that potentially may contribute to possible exceedances of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone. The El Comite case is the latest action in a series of challenges to California’s regulation of emissions of pesticides considered to be volatile organic compounds (VOC) stretching back to 2004. The case will consider substantive issues pertaining to the enforceability of the limits on pesticide VOC emissions in the SIP and the adequacy of those limits to attain compliance with the NAAQS. Of significant interest, it will also include a novel argument that EPA’s conclusion under CAA Section 7410(a)(2)(E) that the SIP did not violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is unsupported by the record.
The Plaintiffs will confront a stiff burden in litigating their Civil Rights claim. The Supreme Court has held that Title VI is violated only when actions have a discriminatory impact and such discrimination is intentional. EPA contends that California gave sufficient assurances that the pesticide controls in the SIP do not violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and that it was reasonable for EPA to rely on those assurances when it approved the SIP. The Plaintiffs point to a preliminary finding made in 2011 by the EPA Office of Civil Rights (OCR) concerning the Angelina C. complaint, where OCR determined that emissions of methyl bromide during the years 1995-2001 had a disparate impact on Latino school children. This preliminary finding was later withdrawn following a settlement with California. The Plaintiffs say that given this history, EPA should have required California to provide a more detailed explanation of why its current regulation of pesticide emissions is not violative of Title VI. The Plaintiffs recently attempted to bolster their Title VI argument by asking the Court to take judicial notice of a report on pesticide use near schools issued by the California Environmental Health Tracking program in 2014, but EPA has opposed consideration of this report because it was not part of the administrative record when EPA approved the SIP revisions in 2012.