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The state may propose and the Environmental Protection Agency may approve revisions to a proposed state implementation plan that meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C.S. § 7410 et seq., at any time prior to the actual promulgation of a federal implementation plan. 42 U.S.C.S. § 7410(c)(1). Even after a federal implementation plan is promulgated, the states remain responsible for submitting revisions to the federal implementation plan if EPA changes the air quality standards, § 7410(a)(1), or if Congress changes the provisions of the act, 42 U.S.C.S. § 7511a(e).
On February 22, 1988, appellants environmental groups filed citizens’ suit to enforce the obligations of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to promulgate ozone and carbon monoxide ("CO") Federal Implementation Plan ("FIP") for the South Coast. In March 1989, EPA entered into a settlement agreement with appellants, which obligated it to prepare, propose, and promulgate final FIPs for the South Coast. In the meantime, EPA sought across-the-board relief from its statutory obligation to promulgate FIPs from Congress, which had begun to consider new amendments to the Clean Air Act. In September 1989, at EPA's urging, the Senate passed an amendment that would have left promulgation of FIPs to EPA's discretion. In May 1990, a House Committee deleted this language. The House language retaining EPA's mandatory obligation to promulgate a FIP whenever it disapproved a SIP was ultimately enacted by Congress and signed into law in 1991. On November 30, 1991, EPA filed a motion asking the district court to vacate the settlement agreement and dismiss the case on the basis of the 1990 Amendments. EPA argued that Congress could not have intended to continue EPA's obligation to promulgate FIPs for the South Coast under the settlement agreement because the 1990 Amendments contained new criteria and new timetables for attainment, which EPA claimed the states must address in the first instance. Under EPA's interpretation of the 1990 Amendments, its mandatory obligation to promulgate FIPs would be triggered only if California failed to submit adequate SIPs under the new deadlines. The district court granted EPA's motion to vacate the settlement agreement and dismissed the case. The present appeal followed.
Could the settlement agreement between appellants and EPA be dismissed on the basis of the 1990 Amendments?
The court reversed the judgment of the district court vacating the settlement agreement, finding that the Clean Air Act imposed a current obligation on the Environmental Protection Agency to promulgate ozone and carbon monoxide federal implementation plans based on its disapproval of California's proposed state implementation plans. According to the Court, the plain language of the statute supported appellants’ contention that EPA was currently obligated to promulgate FIPs for the South Coast. The court did not give merit to EPA’s contention that its interpretation of the statute should prevail as it was the administering agency. The court averred that it was required to first exhaust the traditional tools of statutory construction. If the intent of Congress was clear, that was the end of the matter.