Fourth Circuit: Can a County Limit Waste Disposal to Public Landfills?

A County ordinance provides that waste generated in the County can be disposed at only a single location — a publicly owned landfill:Landfill

The dumping or depositing by any person at any place other than at the designated facilities of any acceptable waste generated within the County is prohibited.

The County crafted the ordinance to further many public benefits: to conserve resources, to prevent pollution, and to protect the public health, safety, and well-being. For the public landfill, the ordinance also ensured a revenue stream.

But for a private landfill operator located just two miles from the County line, the ordinance was a real problem. The ordinance led to a significant decrease in its business.

The operator sued the County. It argued that the County ordinance violates the dormant-commerce clause and the equal-protection clause of the federal constitution. Is the operator correct?

In Sandlands C&D LLC v. County of Horry, No. 13-1134 (Dec. 3, 2013), the Fourth Circuit ruled against the operator. It upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the County.

Applying the Supreme Court’s decision in United Haulers Ass’n v. Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Management Authority, 550 U.S. 330, 346 (2007), the court ruled that the ordinance did not unlawfully discriminate against interstate commerce simply because it favored a public site:

Trash disposal is a traditional function of local government, so county waste-management ordinances can permissibly distinguish between private businesses and those controlled by states, counties, and municipalities. See United Haulers, 550 U.S. at 342, 344. Like the ordinances in United Haulers, the Horry County Flow Control Ordinance “benefit[s] a clearly public facility.” 550 U.S. at 342.

The court also concluded that the record does not show that the ordinance treats private parties differently. The fact that another public landfill outside the County continued to receive some County waste is irrelevant: “the question is whether Sandlands has been treated differently from other private businesses–not other public entities.” The court found that the ordinance treats all private entities the same:

[B]ecause no private landfills can be designated by the SWA, all private landfills are treated equally. Furthermore, all private haulers are prohibited from transporting waste from Horry County to landfills not operated by or designated by the SWA.

The court further ruled that the ordinance “clearly confers public benefits that outweigh any conceivable burden on interstate commerce.” Like the ordinance in United Haulers, this ordinance:

provides “a convenient and effective way to finance [an] integrated package of waste disposal services.” Id. at 346. The Ordinance creates a revenue stream through which the county can support waste management, recycling programs, and its 911 calling system. Although revenue generation alone cannot justify facial discrimination, United Haulers recognized that it can constitute a benefit under the Pike test. Id. The Ordinance also confers other “significant health and environmental benefits.” See id. at 347. Examples include public education about recycling, increased opportunities for recycling, and the operation of a green power facility that generates electricity using landfill gas.

For similar reasons, the court rejected the operator’s equal-protection challenge because the operator had not shown that it had been intentionally treated differently than other similarly situated companies.

Image courtesy of Flickr creative common license (without changes) from Redwin Law.