Washington State Sues USPS

Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced today a lawsuit against Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) asserting that they violated federal environmental law when deciding in February to replace up to 165,000 vehicles with primarily gas-powered models rather than making a larger switch to electric vehicles.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, asserts the Postal Service and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), often referred to as the “Magna Carta of environmental law,” during a deficient review process. For example, USPS chose a manufacturer, signed a contract and put down a substantial down payment for new vehicles months before it released any environmental review of a decision. When USPS published its environmental review, it did not consider reasonable alternatives, like buying a majority of electric vehicles and opting for gas vehicles where electric vehicles were infeasible. The Postal Service also ignored key environmental impacts, like the effect of continued poor air quality in already-polluted communities. USPS also did not consider whether purchasing a majority of gas-powered vehicles was consistent with climate policies in states like Washington.

Instead, the Postal Service’s environmental review depended on a contactor with no experience making electric vehicles, ignored reasonable alternatives, discounted the air quality and climate effects of a new fleet of gas-powered trucks and relied on an assumption that any upgrades to its vehicle fleet would be environmentally beneficial.

In other words, USPS’ environmental review served solely to justify its predetermined choice: to buy the fossil-fuel-powered vehicles its preferred contractor was most familiar building. ­­­­

“The ‘Magna Carta’ of environmental law requires government to look before it leaps by considering reasonable alternatives and allowing the people’s voices to inform decisions,” Ferguson said. “Postmaster DeJoy illegally leapt towards gas-powered vehicles without sufficiently considering alternatives. Postmaster DeJoy failed to uphold his responsibility to protect our shared environment.”

USPS has one of the largest civilian vehicle fleets in the world, consisting of approximately 212,000 vehicles that are on the road delivering mail at least six days per week to nearly every community in the U.S. Most of these vehicles were manufactured between 1986 and 1994 and are now beyond their intended service life. As a result, they are increasingly expensive to operate and maintain.

In February 2021, DeJoy, a Trump Administration appointee, chose Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Defense to build the replacement fleet. USPS will spend billions of dollars over the next decade to replace its aging vehicles. Oshkosh does not currently manufacture any electric vehicles.

When making its decision on the replacement fleet, Ferguson asserts, USPS ignored or discounted the environmental impacts — including air quality in communities already burdened by pollution, environmental justice and other climate harms — by simply assuming that any upgrade to its vehicle fleet would be positive. Ferguson asserts such an arbitrary metric is not the standard for review under NEPA, which requires federal agencies to take a hard look at environmental impacts of any decisions and not to commit resources to a course of action before completing an environmental review.

In Washington, warmer temperatures from climate change have led to diminished snowpack, harming downstream communities that rely on snowmelt for hydroelectric power, drinking water and agriculture. Further, legislation requires the state to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. 

Environmental justice recognizes that disproportionately impacted communities must be meaningfully involved in creating environmental protections. Research shows that Black, Indigenous, people of color and low-income communities face the worst of the impacts of environmental problems and climate change. Regarding the Postal Service’s decision on its fleet, the Environmental Protection Agency noted that since many vulnerable communities live near well-traveled and congested highways and mail distribution facilities then “they would be exposed to disproportionate emissions from mail delivery vehicles.”

Ferguson’s previous legal actions to hold DeJoy, USPS accountable

In August 2020, Ferguson led a coalition of 15 attorneys general in federal court in Eastern Washington that successfully blocked Postmaster DeJoy from eliminating or reducing staff overtime, halting outgoing mail processing at state distribution centers and removing critical mail sorting equipment before the November election.

In September 2020, a federal judge overseeing the case blocked numerous changes USPS wanted to enact that would have impaired delivery of mail-in ballots, prescriptions, benefit checks and other items ahead of the general election.

In late October 2020, Judge Stanley A. Bastian ordered the USPS to perform nightly sweeps of mailrooms in Wisconsin and around Detroit, Michigan to ensure the delivery of all ballots received prior to the election. Both states were decided at the presidential level by a total of approximately 175,000 votes.

Washington state’s history in founding NEPA

Former Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson introduced NEPA in the Senate in 1968 when he chaired the Senate Interior & Insular Affairs Committee. It passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and President Richard Nixon signed it into law on Jan. 1, 1970.

Sen. Jackson once said about NEPA: “The purpose of this legislation is to lay the framework for a continuing program of research and study which will insure that present and future generations of Americans will be able to live in and enjoy an environment free of hazards to mental and physical well-being.”

NEPA embodies our nation’s democratic values by involving states, local governments and the public in the federal decision making process. Before NEPA became law in 1970, federal agencies could make decisions without considering an action’s environmental impacts or public concerns. NEPA requires federal agencies to engage in a transparent, public and informed decision making process. NEPA’s public process also provides vulnerable communities and communities of color a critical voice in the decision making process on actions that threaten their health and environment.

USPS’ deficient review process

USPS is required to follow NEPA’s process in deciding whether, or how, to renew its fleet of mail trucks. Members of Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Council on Environmental Quality have heavily criticized USPS’ flaunting of NEPA’s requirements, finding its rationale for purchasing a fleet of primarily gas-powered mail trucks to be lacking.

On March 17, the Postal Service’s Inspector General issued a report on how the agency could use electric delivery vehicles. The report found “there is no longer any question that electric vehicles can serve the functions necessary for postal delivery” and could save the agency money in the long term. On April 5, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform called in USPS leadership for questioning on how they made their decisions.

Washington, and other states that are part of the lawsuit against USPS, have asked a federal court to declare that its decision violated NEPA, and to set aside the decision until USPS complies with the law.

The Attorneys General of California, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, as well as the City of New York and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District joined the lawsuit.

Assistant Attorneys General Megan Sallomi and Aurora Janke are leading the case for the Attorney General’s Office.

Ferguson’s previous legal actions to protect NEPA

Ferguson led a federal lawsuit in August 2020 against the Trump Administration for illegally gutting NEPA. The Trump Administration’s changes to NEPA regulations severely limited the types of federal actions requiring agency review of environmental effects, restricted the scope of environmental reviews, diminished public participation in federal decisions and unlawfully sought to block judicial review of agency actions that violate NEPA. That case currently is stayed until July pending the Biden Administration’s review of the NEPA regulations.

Source: Washington Attorney General's Office

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