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Fort Gratiot Sanitary Landfill, Inc. v. Michigan Dep't of Natural Resources

ELR Citation: 22 ELR 20904
Nos. No. 91-636, 504 U.S. 353/34 ERC 1728/(U.S., 06/01/1992) Rev'd

The Court holds that a Michigan law requiring private landfill operators to limit their business to accepting wastes only from the counties in which their facilities are located violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. A landfill operator who was denied authority to accept out-of-state waste sought a declaration that the Michigan waste import restrictions are unconstitutional and unenforceable. The U.S. district court dismissed the complaint and the U.S. circuit court affirmed, holding that the Michigan law does not facially discriminate against interstate commerce, because the import restrictions apply equally to out-of-county and out-of-state wastes. The circuit court also ruled that there was no actual discrimination, because the landfill operator had not alleged that all Michigan counties ban out-of-state waste. The Court initially holds that solid waste, even if it has no value, is an article of commerce, and states are not free from constitutional scrutiny under the dormant aspect of the Commerce Clause when they restrict the interstate movement of wastes. On the merits, the Court holds that Michigan's waste import restrictions impermissibly discriminate against interstate commerce and amount to economic protectionist measures that do not withstand Commerce Clause scrutiny. The Court's ruling in Philadelphia v. New Jersey, 8 ELR 20540, which held that New Jersey's prohibition on the importation of solid waste constituted economic protectionism, is controlling, because Michigan's waste import restrictions authorize each county to isolate itself from the national economy and afford local waste producers almost complete protection from competition from out-of-state producers seeking to use local disposal areas. That the Michigan law regulates intercounty commerce in waste and treats waste from Michigan counties no differently than waste from other states does not distinguish this case from Philadelphia v. New Jersey. The limited exception for individual Michigan counties to accept out-of-state waste merely reduces the scope of the discrimination, and the Court's cases teach that to curtail the movement of articles of commerce through subdivisions of a state, rather than through a state itself, does not enable a state to avoid Commerce Clause strictures. The Court next holds that the respondents' reliance on the distinction between economic protectionism and health and safety regulation is misplaced; nor are the waste import restrictions justified on the basis of resource shortage. Assuming that the other provisions in Michigan's law could fairly be characterized as comprehensive health and safety regulations, the same assumption does not apply to the waste import restrictions. Those restrictions unambiguously discriminate against interstate commerce, and the state has not met its burden of proving that its underlying health and safety concerns cannot be served by nondiscriminatory alternatives. For example, by limiting the amount of waste that landfill operators may accept each year, Michigan could attain the objective of planning for the safe disposal of future waste flows without discriminating between in-state and out-of-state waste. Further, the respondents have not demonstrated that imported waste presents health or safety concerns not presented by Michigan waste.

In dissent, Justices Rehnquist and Blackmun would remand the case for further proceedings, because the Michigan law is arguably directed to legitimate local concerns. The waste import restrictions are one part of a comprehensive approach to addressing the environmental, aesthetic, health, and safety problems flowing from the nation's rising waste volumes, and accordingly do not result in economic protectionism. The objects banned in the Court's prior cases presented no health or environmental risk, whereas the solid wastes restricted by Michigan appear to be potentially dangerous. Further, prior Commerce Clause cases do not prohibit a state from adopting health and safety regulations that are directed to legitimate state concerns. Michigan does not violate the Commerce Clause by limiting the ability of its own population to despoil the environment and to create health and safety risks by uncontrolled waste disposal. The Commerce Clause does not require states where land prices are low to become the waste repositories and suffer health and safety risks for other states.

[The district court and circuit court decisions in this case are published at 20 ELR 21135 and 21 ELR 20847.]

Counsel for Petitioner
Harold B. Finn
One Landmark Sq., Ste. 600, Stamford CT 06901
(203) 964-8000

Counsel for Respondent
Lawrence R. Ternan
200 E. Long Lake, Ste. 110, Bloomfield Hills MI 48304
(313) 645-9400