Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has decided to transfer petitions for review to the D.C. Circuit. The petitions challenge a final rule by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the contested rule, the EPA disapproved state implementation plans (SIPs) for 21 states, including Oklahoma and Utah, considering that these states failed to sufficiently address their contributions to air-quality problems in downwind states. The EPA argued that the petitions should be reviewed in the D.C. Circuit because the disputed rule is nationally applicable. The Tenth Circuit agreed, stating that the jurisdiction for review depends on the nature of the EPA's final action, not the specifics of the petitioner’s grievance. The Tenth Circuit ruled that, on its face, the final EPA action being challenged is nationally applicable, hence, any challenge to that rule belongs in the D.C. Circuit. Therefore, the court granted the EPA's motion to transfer the petitions. View "Utah v. Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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This case involves an appeal by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Tintina Montana Incorporated (Tintina) of a district court's order revoking a permit granted to Tintina to construct and operate the Black Butte Copper Mine. The district court revoked the permit on the grounds that the DEQ failed to adhere to two statutory schemes governing the state permitting process: Montana’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act (MMRA) and the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). The Supreme Court of Montana found that DEQ demonstrated compliance with both laws and accordingly reversed the district court's order and reinstated Tintina's permit.The Supreme Court held that DEQ satisfied MMRA and MEPA in approving Tintina’s proposed cemented tailings facility. The court concluded that DEQ had evaluated the science and made a reasoned decision, supported by substantial evidence, that the surface tailings at the Black Butte Copper Mine would be stable and non-flowable.The court also held that DEQ satisfied MEPA by rationally evaluating the environmental impact of the mine’s total nitrogen discharges into Sheep Creek. After considering relevant data, DEQ articulated a reasoned explanation for its rationale, and its determination was supported by substantial evidence and was not arbitrary, random, or seemingly unmotivated based on the existing record.Furthermore, the court held that DEQ satisfied MEPA when it considered and dismissed alternatives to the proposed action. DEQ had appropriately had its independent consultant take a deeper look when Tintina’s working group emphasized cost considerations in dismissing the depyritization alternatives. ERM identified technical feasibility issues it suggested be considered more carefully, and DEQ’s final review shows that the agency considered those challenges and decided to accept the cemented paste tailings option (with modification) as the preferred action. MTU has not demonstrated that DEQ failed its responsibility under MEPA to consider reasonable alternatives to the proposed action.The case was remanded to the district court to reinstate DEQ’s decision to grant Tintina’s permit. View "Montana Trout Unlimited v. Tintina" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division One, addressed an appeal from Hilltop Group, Inc., and ADJ Holdings, LLC (Hilltop Group), regarding a dispute with the County of San Diego (County), over the proposed North County Environmental Resources Project (NCER Project), a recycling facility. The Hilltop Group applied to develop the NCER Project on a parcel of land that was designated for industrial use by the County as part of its General Plan Update (GPU) in 2011. However, the project faced significant opposition from community members, homeowners associations, and the nearby City of Escondido due to concerns over potential environmental impacts.The County staff initially required Hilltop Group to conduct environmental studies. Based on these studies, the County concluded that the NCER Project qualified for a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) exemption under section 21083.3, meaning that no further environmental review would be needed. However, this decision was appealed to the Board of Supervisors, who voted to grant the appeals and require further environmental review. The Hilltop Group challenged this decision in court, arguing that the NCER Project did not have any significant and peculiar environmental effects that were not already evaluated by the program Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the GPU.The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hilltop Group, finding that the Board of Supervisors did not proceed in a manner required by law when they denied the exemption and failed to limit further environmental review to those effects enumerated in Guidelines section 15183, subdivision (b)(1) through (4). The court concluded that the Board of Supervisors' findings of peculiar environmental effects in the areas of aesthetics, noise, traffic, air quality, and GHG emissions were not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Therefore, the court held that the Board of Supervisors' decision denying the CEQA exemption and requiring the preparation of an EIR constituted a prejudicial abuse of discretion. The court reversed the trial court's judgment and directed it to enter a new judgment granting the petition and issuing a peremptory writ of mandate directing the County to set aside its decision granting the administrative appeals and requiring the preparation of an EIR. View "Hilltop Group, Inc. v. County of San Diego" on Justia Law

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In this case, Plaintiff-Appellant Lazy S Ranch Properties, LLC (Lazy S) filed a lawsuit against Defendants-Appellees Valero Terminaling and Distribution Company and related entities (collectively, Valero), alleging that Valero's pipeline leaked and caused contamination on Lazy S's property. The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed in part and affirmed in part the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Valero.Lazy S runs cattle operations on a large property in Oklahoma, beneath which several pipelines transport hydrocarbons. In 2018, a representative of the ranch noticed a diesel fuel odor emanating from a cave near a water source on the property. Samples were taken and tested, and these tests revealed trace amounts of refined petroleum products in soil, surface water, groundwater, spring water, and air on the ranch.Lazy S brought several claims against Valero, including private nuisance, public nuisance, negligence per se, and negligence. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Valero, holding that Lazy S did not present sufficient evidence to establish a legal injury or causation.On appeal, the Tenth Circuit found that Lazy S had presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to legal injury on its claims of private nuisance, public nuisance, and negligence per se. The court noted that Lazy S had presented evidence of a strong odor emanating from a cave near a water source on the property, headaches suffered by individuals due to the odor, and changes in behavior due to the odor. As such, a rational trier of fact could conclude that the odor injured the ranch.The Tenth Circuit also found that Lazy S had presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to causation. The court noted that the pipeline was a major source of potential contamination beneath the ranch, that it had leaked in the past, and that a pathway existed for hydrocarbons to travel from the pipeline to the water source.The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment on Lazy S's claims of constructive fraud and trespass, finding that Lazy S had not presented sufficient evidence to support these claims.The court remanded the case to the district court for trial on the issues of negligence per se, private nuisance, and public nuisance, including Lazy S's claims for damages. View "Lazy S Ranch Properties v. Valero Terminaling and Distribution" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has ruled in a complex environmental case involving an entity known as the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust (RACER), which was created to manage the environmental cleanup of former General Motors (GM) properties. RACER sought recovery of costs related to environmental cleanup under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) from multiple defendants who had also contributed to the pollution. The district court had dismissed RACER's claims, concluding that a 2011 consent decree had resolved RACER's liability for the area in question. On appeal, the Second Circuit vacated the decision, ruling that the 2011 consent decree did not resolve RACER's liability for the entire area. The court held that the extent of RACER's liability under the 2011 consent decree is a factual question that could not be resolved at the pleading stage. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust v. National" on Justia Law

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The case involves Hans Utsch and Julia H. Merck's appeal against a denial of their petition for judicial review of an email from the mining coordinator of the Department of Environmental Protection. The case originates from Harold MacQuinn, Inc.'s intent to restart quarry operations in Hall Quarry, Mount Desert. Under Maine law, quarry operations must comply with performance standards, and those intending to operate a quarry must file a “notice of intent to comply” (NOITC) with these performance standards. The email that Utsch and Merck challenge is about whether MacQuinn is required to file a NOITC.From 2012 to 2015, the mining coordinator asserted that MacQuinn did not need to file a NOITC, as the quarry operated before 1970 and was thus grandfathered into the performance standards for quarries. In 2017, the Legislature passed an act that added temporal language to the performance standards for quarries, limiting the one-acre threshold to areas excavated since January 1, 1970. MacQuinn modified its excavation plan so that the total area excavated would not exceed one acre, thus not requiring a NOITC according to the mining coordinator.Utsch and Merck, who live near the quarry, filed a petition for review of the mining coordinator’s email, claiming that the Department violated statutory provisions by determining that MacQuinn does not have to file a NOITC before operating the quarry. The Superior Court denied their petition, on the basis that the email was a final agency action and Utsch and Merck had standing to appeal it.On appeal, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court vacated the Superior Court’s judgment and remanded for dismissal of the petition. The court held that the mining coordinator’s email was not a final agency action, as it did not affect anyone’s “legal rights, duties or privileges” under the Maine Administrative Procedure Act. The court further held that Utsch and Merck's petition was not ripe for consideration as a declaratory judgment action because it fails both prongs required for ripeness, as their allegations were too uncertain and speculative. View "Utsch v. Department of Environmental Protection" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Supreme Court of the State of Nevada considered whether the Nevada State Engineer had the authority to combine multiple existing hydrographic basins into one "superbasin" for the purposes of water administration and management based on a shared source of water. The State Engineer had combined seven basins into one superbasin, the Lower White River Flow System (LWRFS), after determining that the waters of these basins were interconnected such that withdrawals from one basin affected the amount of water in the other basins. The State Engineer also found that the previously granted appropriations of water exceeded the rate of recharge in the LWRFS. Various entities who owned water rights throughout the new superbasin challenged the State Engineer's decision, claiming that he lacked the authority to manage surface waters and groundwater jointly and that his decision violated their due process rights.The Supreme Court of the State of Nevada held that the State Engineer indeed had the authority to manage surface waters and groundwater conjunctively and to jointly administer multiple basins. The court also found that the State Engineer did not violate the rights holders' due process rights because they received notice and had an opportunity to be heard. The court reversed the lower court's decision that had granted the rights holders' petitions for judicial review and remanded the matter back to the lower court for further proceedings to determine whether substantial evidence supported the State Engineer's factual determinations. View "Sullivan v. Lincoln County Water District" on Justia Law

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The case in question involved a dispute between Epochal Enterprises, Inc., doing business as Divine Orchids, and LF Encinitas Properties, LLC and Leichtag Foundation, over a commercial lease agreement for a property containing dilapidated commercial greenhouses known to contain asbestos and lead paint. Epochal Enterprises claimed that the defendants failed to disclose the presence of these hazardous substances, which resulted in economic damage when the County of San Diego quarantined the leased premises. A jury found the defendants liable for premises liability and negligence, and awarded Epochal Enterprises damages for lost profits and other past economic loss.However, the trial court granted the defendants' motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), based on a limitation of liability clause in the lease agreement that purported to prevent Epochal Enterprises from recovering the economic damages awarded by the jury.The Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District Division One State of California, reversed the trial court's judgment. It found that the jury necessarily concluded that the defendants had violated the Health and Safety Code by failing to disclose the existence of asbestos, and that this violation of law rendered the limitation of liability clause invalid under Civil Code section 1668. The court concluded that the limitation of liability clause could not bar Epochal Enterprises from recovering damages for the defendants' statutory violations.The court also affirmed the trial court's denial of the defendants' motion for partial JNOV on the issue of damages, finding that the jury had a reasonable basis for calculating the amount of lost profits. The court remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Epochal Enterprises, Inc. v. LF Encinitas Properties, LLC" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Court of Appeal of the State of California Third Appellate District considered whether the planning and implementation of amendments to long-term contracts with local government agencies that receive water through the State Water Project violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act (Delta Reform Act), and the public trust doctrine. The Department of Water Resources (the department) had determined that these amendments, which extended the contract terms to 2085 and made financial changes to the contracts, would not have an environmental impact. The department then filed an action to validate the amendments. Several conservation groups and public agencies contested this action, bringing separate actions challenging the amendments. After a coordinated proceeding, the trial court ruled in favor of the department. The appellants appealed this decision, but the Court of Appeal affirmed the lower court's ruling. The court found that the department had followed the correct procedures under CEQA, that the amendments did not violate the Delta Reform Act or the public trust doctrine, and that it was not necessary to recirculate the Environmental Impact Report for further public comment. The court also rejected the appellants' arguments that the department had improperly segmented its environmental analysis and that its project description was inaccurate or unstable. Finally, the court held that the amendments were not a "covered action" under the Delta Reform Act requiring a consistency certification with the Delta Plan. View "Planning and Conservation League v. Dept. of Water Resources" on Justia Law

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In a case involving the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. and others (appellants) against the City of Los Angeles and others (respondents), the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division One, reversed and remanded a lower court's decision for further proceedings. The case revolved around the preparation of a supplemental environmental impact report (SEIR) under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for the continued operation of the China Shipping Container Terminal located in the Port of Los Angeles. The appellants alleged that the SEIR violated CEQA in multiple ways, including the failure to ensure that mitigation measures were enforceable and the failure to adequately analyze the emissions impacts of the project. The trial court agreed with some of the appellants' claims and ordered the Port to set aside the certification of the 2019 SEIR and prepare a revised SEIR that complies with CEQA. However, the court did not impose further remedies, such as the cessation of Port activities or the required implementation of certain mitigation measures. The court's decision was appealed by the appellants, who argued that the trial court erred in its determination of the remedy and that certain other mitigation measures in the SEIR were not supported by substantial evidence. The appellate court agreed with some of these claims and reversed the trial court's decision. It remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings, including the consideration of its authority to fashion an appropriate remedy in light of the CEQA violations. View "Natural Resources Defense Council v. City of Los Angeles" on Justia Law