Court Dismisses Fed Challenge to New Mexico’s Hazardous Waste Act Permit for Lack of Jurisdiction

On Thursday, the District of New Mexico issued an opinion in the case of United States v. New Mexico Environment Department denying both parties’ cross motions for summary judgment and dismissing the environmental law case concerning environmental restrictions placed on an Air Force base.

According to the opinion, the case began when the United States challenged certain terms in a hazardous waste permit issued by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to Cannon Air Force Base, arguing that the terms violate the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act. The opinion further states that at the base, the Air Force uses hazardous perfluoroalkyls (PFAS) to extinguish jet fuel fires in violation of the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act.

The court states that the Resources Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) is the primary federal statute regulating the disposal of solid and hazardous waste which authorizes a state to enforce its own hazardous waste program in lieu of the RCRA. Additionally, the RCRA contains an explicit waiver of sovereign immunity, making federal facilities subject to state requirements. 

Therefore, the court states that the RCRA sets the minimum standards, but a state may impose additional requirements on federal installations such as Cannon Air Force Base like New Mexico has with the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act. The court states through its authority under the RCRA and New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act, the NMED included PFAS as a hazardous waste requiring corrective action when it renewed Cannon Air Force Base’s hazardous waste permit. 

The United States then sued, originally arguing that the permit’s definition of hazardous waste exceeded the scope of Congress’ waiver of sovereign immunity under the RCRA. The court recounts that the United States filed an amended complaint abandoning its sovereign immunity allegations and instead challenged the permit under New Mexico’s Hazardous Waste Act, seeking a declaration that terms of the permit are inconsistent with the Act and are arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion. 

Both parties subsequently filed cross motions for summary judgment addressing whether the permit’s terms run afoul of the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act’s standard of review. Specifically, the United States urged the court to construe the case as a state administrative appeal.

The court’s opinion does not address the substantive issues in the cross motions for summary judgment, but instead determines it lacks the jurisdiction to hear the claims in the amended complaint. The court states that although it has jurisdiction to hear the original sovereign immunity claim, it lacks the jurisdiction to hear a New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act administrative appeal as brought in the amended complaint. The court reasons that New Mexico’s Hazardous Waste Act strips the court of its jurisdiction to hear an administrative appeal because the Act states the exclusive venue for such appeal is the New Mexico Court of Appeals.