Despite Meeting Clean Air Standards, Supreme Court Forces Ohio to Write New Air Plan

Published May 5, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear an Ohio case will force the state into tighter environmental restrictions than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required.

After Ohio fell into “non-attainment” status exceeding the  acceptable amount of particulate matter in its air, EPA required the state to write and submit a new pollution control plan. Before the plan was written, Ohio’s particulate matter decreased below national standards and EPA allowed Ohio to forego writing a new plan.

That would have been the end of it, but the Sierra Club sued the Ohio, saying the state should have written a plan, even though its air quality now met EPA standards. In 2015, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case, and despite EPA agreeing with Ohio, the court sided with the Sierra Club.

The Sixth Circuit’s ruling contradicted the rulings of several other circuit courts making the case ripe for review. Part of the reason the Supreme Court decided not to take up the case may be the fact, while EPA stood by its decision saying the Sixth Circuit was wrong to overturn EPA’s position, the agency ultimately asked the Supreme Court to deny Ohio’s petition for a review, arguing in a filing “the practical significance of the court of appeals’ error and the conflict in authority, however, does not appear to be sufficient to warrant the Court’s review at this time.”

Nine states and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed amicus curae briefs in support of Ohio.

The Supreme Court’s decision leaves varying interpretations in place across the nation. If similar situations arise in the future, as the case law stands now, in some regions states will not have to submit new plans if their air quality comes into compliance before EPA requires a new plan. In the states covered by the Sixth Circuit, they will have to write and submit a new plan if EPA requires it before their air quality meets national standards.

Real-World Consequences

The stricter interpretation of “non-attainment” has consequences.

“Conducting business in an area designated as non-attainment is more complicated, more time-consuming, and more costly,” says Michael Fisher, president of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce in a statement quoted in Ohio’s petition.

“The Sixth Circuit’s decision imposes real costs on those people without countervailing public-health benefits because Ohio has achieved attainment,” Ohio’s petition reads.

What Does ‘Reasonable’ Mean?

In addition to these consequences, the ruling makes little sense, Ohio argued.

In Ohio’s appeal to SCOTUS, the state asked the court, “Does the non-attainment-plan statue’s mandate to use ‘reasonably available control measures’ compel states to impose measures unnecessary to meet the relevant air-quality standards?”

According to its petition, “EPA has always interpreted ‘reasonably available control measures’ to include only measures necessary to attain the relevant standards. Under that view, no more measures were ‘reasonably available’ here because Ohio had met the fine-particulate matter standards.”

Mary C. Tillotson ([email protected]) is a freelance writer from Michigan.