Clean Air Act, state emissions regulations do not preempt private nuisance or trespass claims

by Gary Taylor

Laurie Freeman, et al v. Grain Processing Corporation
(Iowa Supreme Court, June 13, 2014)

Grain Processing Corporation (GPC) conducts corn wet milling operations at its facility in Muscatine.  Laurie Freeman and seven other named plaintiffs – representing a class identified as “all Muscatine residents who have resided…within 1.5 miles of the perimeter of [GPC’s] facility” – allege that GPC’s operations create hazardous by-products and harmful chemicals which are released directly into the atmosphere.  The pollutants include sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds including acetaldehyde.  They assert that particulate matter is visible on nearby properties and that the emissions cause persistent irritations and discomforts and put them at risk for serious health effects.  They brought claims for nuisance, negligence and trespass against GPC.  GPC countered by filing for summary judgment, claiming that (1) the federal Clean Air Act (CAA) preempts the plaintiffs’ state law claims, (2) Iowa Code Chapter 455B – which regulates emissions – preempts the plaintiffs’ claims, and (3) a lawsuit impacting facility emissions lacks judicially discoverable standards for resolving the issues.  The district court sided with GPC and plaintiffs appealed.  The portions of the Iowa Supreme Court decision addressing (1) and (2) will be reviewed here.

Clean Air Act preemption. In a 63-page opinion that included a history lesson on the origins of present day environmental law, the Iowa Supreme Court acknowledged that “the Environmental Protection Agency has created a vast regulatory structure to control the emission of air pollutants, including technological standards, health standards, risk levels, and enforcement provisions, completely transforming what was once the province of state law.” The court also recognized, however, that there are differences between common law remedies such as nuisance and trespass, and regulatory regimes such as the CAA and chapter 455B.  While regulatory regimes focus on the prevention of pollution through emissions standards designed to protect the general public, “the common law focuses on special harms to property owners caused by pollution at a specific location.”  The Iowa Supreme Court noted that the United States Supreme Court is reluctant to find that a federal law preempts state law in areas where states have traditionally exercised their police power.  Congress has the power to preempt local law and can expressly do so, but did not in the CAA.  To suggest that Congress indirectly removed state law claims such as nuisance and trespass “seems…rather unlikely,” and the Iowa Supreme Court declined to interpret the CAA in that way.  “The purpose of state nuisance and common law actions is to protect the use and enjoyment of specific property, not to achieve a general regulatory purpose….We decline to conclude that the increased complexity of the CAA has categorically elbowed out a role for the state nuisance and common law claims presented here.”

Iowa Code Chapter 455B. The court began by noting that “the legislature is presumed to know the existing state of the law when a new statute is enacted.  In the absence of any express repeal, the new provision is presumed to accord with the legislative policy embodied in prior statutes.”  While there are no definitive Iowa cases addressing the question of whether nuisance claims may go forward in light of Chapter 455B, the court did find instructive cases that have found that a lawful business, properly conducted, may still constitute a nuisance, even if in compliance with state regulations.  “We do not see enforcement of nuisance and other common law torts as inconsistent with the regulatory framework of chapter 455B.”  Nuisance claims are based on specific harms to the use and enjoyment of real property, while air pollution regulations are enacted to protect the public interest.

The Iowa Supreme Court reversed the district court’s summary judgment, allowing the case to proceed to trial.

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