Michigan, 15 other states that want to electrify USPS fleet sue the feds

David Sharp
Associated Press

Michigan and 15 other states that want the U.S. Postal Service to buy more electric delivery vehicles are suing to halt purchases of thousands of gas-powered trucks as the agency modernizes its mail delivery fleet.

Three separate lawsuits, filed by 16 states, environmental groups and a high-profile labor union Thursday in New York and California, ask judges to order a more thorough environmental review before the Postal Service moves forward with the next-generation delivery vehicle program.

Plaintiffs contend that purchases of fossil fuel-powered delivery vehicles will cause environmental harm for decades to come.

A United States Postal Service employee works outside a post office in Wheeling, Ill., Dec. 3, 2021.

“Louis DeJoy’s gas-guzzling fleet guarantees decades of pollution with every postcard and package,” said Scott Hochberg, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, referring to the postmaster general.

One lawsuit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, CleanAirNow KC and Sierra Club in San Francisco. Attorneys general from 16 states and the District of Columbia filed another suit in the same venue. Another was filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and United Auto Workers in New York.

All of three of them target the environmental review underpinning of the Postal Service's planned purchase of up to 165,000 next-generation delivery vehicles over the next decade.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta said it’s key to stop the process before it’s too late.

“Once this purchase goes through, we’ll be stuck with more than 100,000 new gas-guzzling vehicles on neighborhood streets, serving homes across our state and across the country, for the next 30 years. There won’t be a reset button,” he said.

The Postal Service defended its actions.

“The Postal Service conducted a robust and thorough review and fully complied with all of our obligations under (the National Environmental Policy Act),” spokesperson Kim Frum said Thursday in an email.

The complaint filed in New York contends that the Postal Service failed in its environmental review by relying on incorrect assumptions about emissions from gas-powered trucks and the relative costs of EVs, and asks the court to stop the purchase while USPS redoes its analysis. 

In the filing, the NRDC and UAW argue that if USPS "undertook a supplemental environmental analysis, it could reach a different conclusion and instead invest in much-needed EVs that would reduce air pollution, mitigate the causes of climate change, provide union jobs, and save the Postal Service money."

They also contend that the purchase plan should "consider impacts related to the location of production."

The USPS has a contract with Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Corp. to build the new trucks. The contractor has come under scrutiny for its decision to move production to South Carolina. That scrutiny has come from numerous labor leaders as well as a congressional investigative committee looking into whether Oshkosh chose the South Carolina site to avoid using union labor, the Oshkosh Northwestern reported last month. 

“With this contract, USPS and Oshkosh Defense abandoned the Wisconsin workers that built the company and failed taxpayers with a sham process to evaluate the environmental and community impacts of these vehicles," UAW President Ray Curry said in a statement. 

"The USPS’s Next Generation Delivery Vehicle is an opportunity for the Biden administration to reverse-court and make real investments in both a cleaner future and good union jobs," he added. "The contract as it currently stands fails on both accounts. It’s time to halt production and start the procurement process over."

The Postal Service contract calls for 10% of the new vehicles to be electric but the agency contends more electric vehicles can be purchased based on financial outlook and strategic considerations.

The percentage of battery-electric vehicles was doubled — to 20% — in the initial $2.98 billion order for 50,000 vehicles.

That change came after the Biden administration criticized the Postal Service's analysis and the Environmental Protection Agency asked USPS to halt the contract and complete a new analysis. 

Biden has pledged to convert the federal fleet to zero-emissions vehicles by 2035. He doesn't have direct control over the Postal Service, but USPS vehicles make up about one-third of the federal fleet. 

Environmental advocates contend the Postal Service's environmental review was inadequate and flawed, and that the contract represented a missed opportunity to electrify the fleet and reduce emissions.

The review process “was so rickety and riddled with error that it failed to meet the basic standards of the National Environmental Policy Act,” said Adrian Martinez, senior attorney on Earthjustice's Right to Zero campaign.

The Postal Service is in the process of replacing the ubiquitous delivery trucks that went into service between 1987 and 1994.

The new gasoline-powered vehicles would get 14.7 miles per gallon (23.7 kilometers per gallon) without air conditioning, compared to 8.4 mpg (13.5 kpg) for the older vehicles, the Postal Service said.

All told, the Postal Service’s fleet includes 190,000 local delivery vehicles. More than 141,000 of those are the old models that lack safety features like air bags, anti-lock brakes and backup cameras.

The new vehicles are taller to make it easier for postal carriers to grab packages and parcels that make up a greater share of volume. They also have improved ergonomics and climate control.

The states beside Michigan that sued are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Detroit News.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District in California, District of Columbia and city of New York joined that lawsuit, as well.

Sharp reported from Portland, Maine. Detroit News staff writer Jordyn Grzelewski contributed.