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Comment: Howmet Corp. v. EPA

By Nathan Kilbert

In Howmet Corp. v. EPA, 614 F.3d 544 (D.C. Cir. 2010), the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA” or “the Agency”) enforcement action as consistent with EPA’s regulations defining regulable “spent material” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”).  The court’s decision is a striking abdication of the judicial responsibility to ensure that administrative agencies act only within statutory limits. In deferring to EPA’s position as a reasonable interpretation of the Agency’s rule, the majority failed to consider the overarching statutory limits that arguably render EPA’s reading of the regulation inconsistent with RCRA. When review of the original rule has been timebarred by statute, this shortsighted deference allows an agency to interpret an ambiguous rule in order to exercise power over activities outside the agency’s congressional grant of authority. In dissent, Judge Kavanaugh moved toward an interpretive approach that would prevent such agency overreach by allowing the text of the statute to inform judgments of the reasonableness of the agency’s reading of its rules.

This Comment first addresses the statutory, regulatory, and factual background of the case and relates the decision of the district court. Then, it discusses the majority and dissenting opinions in the Court of Appeals. Third, the Comment briefly lays out the rationale for Seminole Rock deference and some criticisms of it. Finally, it examines how the Howmet majority’s opinion interacts with Seminole Rock deference and argues that courts could better enforce statutory limits on agency power by evaluating the reasonableness of agency regulatory interpretations in the light of the authorizing statute.

Cite as: Nathan Kilbert, Comment, Howmet Corp. v. EPA, 35 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 555 (2011).

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