News release from Administrative Office of the Courts
Nashville, Tenn. – The Tennessee Supreme Court has reversed a Court of Appeals decision concerning the cleanup of a landfill that has been discharging pollutants into a Maury County lake.
From 1981 to 1993, ACC, LLC operated a landfill in Maury County, Tennessee, where it disposed of aluminum recycling wastes from a local aluminum smelting plant. Within a few years of becoming operational, the landfill began to discharge chlorides and ammonia into water that drained into a local lake. This discharge was in violation of the Water Quality Control Act and the Tennessee Solid Waste Disposal Act.
Over several years, ACC worked with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) in an attempt to remedy the problem. After a number of efforts proved unsuccessful, ACC and TDEC agreed that the best solution would be to remove the waste causing the pollution from the landfill site. In 2011, ACC and TDEC entered into an administrative consent order requiring ACC to divert water from entering the landfill and, over a four-year period, remove the landfill waste. The order was filed in the Davidson County Chancery Court for approval.
StarLink Logistics Inc., a neighboring landowner, intervened in the Chancery Court proceeding and objected to the terms of the order. StarLink was concerned that the discharge of pollutants from the landfill site onto its property would continue during the removal of the waste. Because the parties could not reach an agreement, the Chancery Court remanded the matter to the Tennessee Solid Waste Disposal Control Board for a contested hearing.
On remand, ACC and TDEC negotiated a new order, which was presented to the Board for approval. After hearing testimony from a number of witnesses, the Board voted to approve the proposed order, agreeing that the best and most economically feasible option would be to remove the waste from the landfill site. The Court of Appeals reversed the Board’s decision, finding it to be arbitrary and capricious because it failed to fully consider the other options discussed at the hearing, such as having StarLink pay for pipes to divert the contaminated water.
In a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice Sharon G. Lee, the Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals misapplied the appropriate standard for reviewing decisions of administrative agencies like the Tennessee Solid Waste Disposal Control Board. Under the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act, the decisions of the Board are to be afforded deference whenever it is acting within its area of specialized knowledge, experience, and expertise. As a result, Board decisions may only be overturned if the decision is shown to be in violation of constitutional or statutory provisions, in excess of the statutory authority of the agency, made upon unlawful procedure, arbitrary or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion, or unsupported by substantial and material evidence.
In reversing the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court held that the Board’s decision did not fit within any of these criteria and thus should have been affirmed. The Court disagreed that the Board’s decision was arbitrary, capricious, and a clear error in judgment, explaining that the Board gave fair consideration to the diversion option and rejected it as a viable solution. According to the Supreme Court, the search for another solution by the Court of Appeals was improper. The case will now return to the intermediate appellate court to decide other issues previously left unsettled.
To read the opinion in StarLink Logistics Inc. v. ACC, LLC, et al. authored by Chief Justice Lee, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.
Note: Direct link to the opinion HERE.