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By Lynn L. Bergeson, Charles M. Auer, and Margaret R. Graham

On December 21, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had wrongly dismissed a Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Section 21 petition submitted by Food & Water Watch, Inc. and other citizens seeking the regulation of fluoridation of drinking water supplies under TSCA Section 6(a) on grounds that the ingestion of fluoride poses an unreasonable risk to humans.  Food & Water Watch, Inc. v. EPA, Case No. 17-cv-02162-EMC (N.D. Cal.) (Food & Water Watch).  In 2017, EPA denied the Section 21 petition on the grounds that it failed to address conditions of use other than the fluoridation of drinking water.  82 Fed. Reg. 11878 (Feb. 27, 2017). 

In a fairly scathing rebuke of EPA’s legal positions, the court denied EPA’s motion to dismiss the petitioner’s judicial challenge of EPA’s administrative denial of the Section 21 petition and, in so doing, essentially rejected EPA’s interpretation that a citizen petition must evaluate all conditions of use of a chemical substance in a TSCA Section 6(b) risk evaluation.  While we are hesitant to note that “we told you so” in our March 7, 2017, blog item, the analysis noted there was spot on.

At issue in Food & Water Watch is EPA’s legal position that TSCA Section 6 requires that EPA consider all conditions of use in proceedings under that provision.  The court rejected this view noting that the “argument has no basis in the statutory text,” and there “is no good reason to believe that the term’s [conditions of use] appearance … [in Section 21] … obligates all citizen petitioners to address all conditions of use.”  The court also noted that EPA’s interpretation creates “a disparity between citizen petitions and manufacturer requests” for a Section 6(b) risk evaluation.  Under the rules, a manufacturer’s request may be limited only to those particular conditions of use of interest to the manufacturer, citing 40 C.F.R. Section 702.37(b)(4).  The court also noted EPA’s change of view on this issue between the proposed and final risk evaluation rule.  EPA initially proposed that risk evaluations must consider all conditions of use, but concluded in the final rule that EPA may focus its review on fewer than all conditions of use.

The court’s analysis is clear and well written, and goes into some detail on EPA’s legal reasoning and the problems it identified with it.

Commentary

This ruling raises interesting issues when viewed in the broader context of pending judicial challenges to EPA’s TSCA framework rules.  In those challenges, citizen advocates challenge EPA’s view, as articulated in the final framework rules, that the Agency retains discretion to assess those conditions of use it believes are most relevant for a particular chemical evaluation.  In other words, they challenge EPA’s view that fewer than all conditions of use must be considered in a risk evaluation, the very position the court in Food & Water Watch rejected for purposes of Section 21 petitions challenging EPA’s interpretation of a citizen’s legal burden under TSCA Section 6(a).  Given that the judicial challenge to the risk evaluation final rule is being heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, this district court decision is particularly relevant.