Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

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Plaintiffs, two environmental organizations, filed a citizens' civil action against administrators and board members of the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District to enforce the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), 15 U.S.C. 2601–2629. Plaintiffs sought remediation of several school buildings containing dangerous levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).On appeal, plaintiffs challenge the district court's sanctions order and its dismissal of one of the plaintiffs for lack of standing, and the district court's decision in December 2018 partially modifying the 2016 permanent injunction. Plaintiffs also ask to take judicial notice of a document dated September 11, 2019, which plaintiffs did not present to the district court.The Ninth Circuit vacated and remanded the district court's sanctions order in light of the Supreme Court's subsequent decision in Goodyear Tire & Robber Co. v. Haeger, 137 S. Ct. 1178 (2017), which clarified the procedural requirements and substantive limitations that apply when a district court imposes sanctions under its inherent authority, rather than pursuant to any statute or rule. The panel also reversed the district court's dismissal of one plaintiff for lack of standing. The panel affirmed in part the district court's 2018 amended judgment and permanent injunction (except for the sanctions order, which is vacated and remanded). Finally, the panel denied plaintiffs' request for judicial notice. View "America Unites for Kids v. Rousseau" on Justia Law

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted the 2019 Affordable Clean Energy Rule (ACE Rule), 84 Fed. Reg. 32,520, repealing and replacing the Clean Power Plan as a means of regulating power plants’ emissions of greenhouse gases. The Clean Power Plan was an Obama-era standard that set the first limits for climate change pollution from existing power plants. The EPA considered its authority under the Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. 7401, 7411 to be confined to physical changes to the power plants themselves. The ACE Rule determined a new system of emission reduction for coal-fired power plants only and left unaddressed greenhouse gas emissions from other types of fossil-fuel-fired power plants, such as those fired by natural gas or oil. Several groups challenged the action.The D.C. Circuit vacated the ACE Rule, which expressly rests on the incorrect conclusion that the plain statutory text foreclosed the Clean Power Plan so that complete repeal was “the only permissible interpretation of the scope of the EPA’s authority” under section 7411. The error prevented full consideration of the statutory question and of measures other than those that apply at and to the individual source. The ACE Rule’s amendment of the regulatory framework to slow the process for the reduction of emissions is arbitrary and capricious. View "American Lung Association v. Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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Since 2011, Jonesboro’s wastewater system has spewed sewage onto Stringer’s property and into her home during heavy rains. Stringer repeatedly complained to the town and its mayor, then brought a “citizen suit” under the Clean Water Act (CWA), 33 U.S.C. 1365, with constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for the uncompensated taking of her property and the mayor’s retaliation. Stringer ran against the mayor in 2014 and claims he retaliated by ignoring her pleas, getting the town to sue her frivolously, and refusing to provide sandbags. The Louisiana Departments of Health (LDOH) and Environmental Quality (LDEQ) have long known about the problems. LDEQ sent the town warning letters and issued compliance orders about unauthorized discharges, including those afflicting Stringer. LDOH issued a compliance order about the discharges on Stringer’s property, imposed mandatory ameliorative measures, and assessed a daily fine. The district court dismissed, finding that the CWA prohibits such suits when a state is addressing the problem through “comparable” state law and finding her section 1983 claims untimely under Louisiana’s one-year prescriptive period. The Fifth Circuit affirmed as to the section 1983 claims. Stringer was long aware of the underlying facts and failed to sue within a year. The Fifth Circuit reversed in part. The enforcement action to which the court pointed—the state health department’s enforcement of the sanitary code—is not “comparable” to the CWA under circuit precedent. View "Stringer v. Town of Jonesboro" on Justia Law

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In 2007, GM sold a power plant to DTEPN, which leased the land under the plant for 10 years. DTEPN agreed to sell utilities produced at the plant to GM, to maintain the plant according to specific criteria, and to address any environmental issues. DTEPN’s parent company, Energy, guaranteed DTEPN’s utility, environmental, and maintenance obligations. Two years later, GM filed for bankruptcy. GM and DTEPN agreed to GM’s rejection of the contracts. DTEPN exercised its right to continue occupying the property. An environmental trust (RACER) assumed ownership of some GM industrial property, including the DTEPN land. DTEPN remained in possession until the lease expired. RACER then discovered that DTEPN had allowed the power plant to fall into disrepair and contaminate the property.The district court dismissed the claims against Energy, reasoning that RACER’s allegations did not support piercing the corporate veil and Energy’s guaranty terminated after GM rejected the contracts in bankruptcy.The Sixth Circuit reversed. Michigan courts have held that a breach of contract can justify piercing a corporate veil if the corporate form has been abused. By allegedly directing its wholly-owned subsidiary to stop maintaining the property, Energy exercised control over DTEPN in a way that wronged RACER. DTEPN is now judgment-proof because it was not adequately capitalized by Energy. RACER would suffer an unjust loss if the corporate veil is not pierced. Rejection in bankruptcy does not terminate the contract; the contract is considered breached, 11 U.S.C. 365(g). The utility services agreement and the lease are not severable from each other. Energy guaranteed DTEPN’s obligations under the utility agreement concerning maintenance, environmental costs, and remediation, so Energy’s guaranty is joined to DTEPN’s section 365(h) election. View "EPLET, LLC v. DTE Pontiac North, LLC" on Justia Law

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At the heart of this case was governmental jurisdiction over one percent of state- and privately owned land within the Grand Teton National Park’s exterior boundaries - collectively called “inholdings.” In consolidated appeals, the Tenth Circuit was tasked with resolving administrative challenges to two actions taken by Defendant-Appellee National Park Service (“NPS”) regarding the management of wildlife on the Park’s inholdings. Appellants challenged NPS’s 2014 determination that 36 C.F.R. 2.2 - a wildlife regulation that prohibited hunting in national parks - did not apply to the Park’s inholdings, based on what NPS had concluded was its lack of jurisdiction over wildlife management on those lands. The Appellants contended the NPS did possess such jurisdiction, and that its determination otherwise was contrary to law and arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act (the “APA”). The second agency action was challenged only by appellant Conservation Association, concerning the Joint Elk Reduction Program - a plan under the joint auspices of NPS and the State of Wyoming, aimed at controlling the Park's elk-herd population. The district court rejected both challenges to the two NPS actions, finding as an initial matter, that Appellants possessed standing to challenge both actions, but they failed to show that either of the contested actions was contrary to law or arbitrary and capricious, and therefore affirmed NPS’s actions in full. After review, the Tenth Circuit held: (1) NPS’s determination that 36 C.F.R. 2.2 did not apply to Park inholdings was not contrary to law or arbitrary and capricious; and (2) the Conservation Association lacked standing to challenge NPS’s approval of the 2015 Elk Reduction Program. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court with respect to NPS’s section 2.2 determination. Furthermore, the Court dismissed the portion of the appeal pertaining to NPS’s approval of the 2015 Elk Reduction Program, and remanded with instructions to the district court to vacate that portion of the judgment, and dismiss the Conservation Association’s claim thereof without prejudice. View "Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Dept. of Interior" on Justia Law

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Every 10-20 years, Berryessa Creek flooded nearby Milpitas and San Jose. The Army Corps of Engineers named the Santa Clara Valley Water District as a flood control project sponsor. The Corps was responsible for design and construction; the District was to acquire property rights and conduct operations. Regional Water Quality Control Board staff requested that the project include mitigation of wetlands impacts. The Corps refused some of the requested changes as exceeding the scope its authorization from Congress and the environmental review. The District issued a final EIR, finding that the project would have substantial impacts on some aspects of water resources, but that those impacts could be reduced to less-than-significant by mitigation measures.The Corps applied to the Board for a Clean Water Act section 401 certificate that the project complied with state law, 33 U.S.C. 1341. Because the Corps’ application did not contain wetlands mitigation, the Board deemed the application incomplete. There was pressure to protect a BART station under construction and to avoid losing federal funding. The Board agreed to issue a section 401 certification, indicating that it would subsequently issue waste discharge requirements (WDRs) under the Porter-Cologne Act to address issues that were not handled under the certification. The Board later issued a WDR order requiring additional mitigation, stating that it was rescinding and superseding the section 401 certification, and required enhancement of 15 acres of waters of the state. The Board was willing to allow another of the District’s planned projects to satisfy the requirement.The State Board denied the District’s petition for review. The court of appeal affirmed the denial of relief. The District has not shown that the allegedly invalid rescission and reissue of the section 401 certification would justify reversal; the Porter-Cologne Act provides independent authority for the WDR order. View "Santa Clara Valley Water District v. San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit denied petitions for review by the State of Texas and Sierra Club, challenging the EPA's action designating Bexar County, Texas as in nonattainment and three neighboring counties as in attainment with the 2015 Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).After determining that venue is proper in the Fifth Circuit, the court held that the relevant statutory language in the Clean Air Act grants EPA discretionary authority to make the changes it "deems necessary." The court also held that EPA's interpretation and implementation of the statute is reasonable. In this case, because Bexar County was not compliant with the 2015 NAAQS when EPA promulgated its designation, the court concluded that the Clean Air Act and the Administrative Procedure Act allowed the change. In regard to the three counties, the court concluded that EPA has not arbitrarily reversed its interpretation of "contribution" and EPA did not fail to articulate a rational connection between the facts in the record and its decision not to designate the disputed counties as nonattainment. In this case, EPA used a permissible, multi-factor analysis to determine that the contributions of Atascosa, Comal, and Guadalupe Counties to Bexar County's ambient ozone levels were insufficient to merit a nonattainment designation. View "Texas v. Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control reviewed wastewater treatment facility construction permit applications under regulations adopted in 1999. In 2014, DNREC revised its regulations and adopted new requirements. In this appeal, the issue presented for the Delaware Supreme Court was whether Artesian Wastewater Management, Inc.’s 2017 construction permit application, which Artesian characterized as an amendment to its existing 2013 wastewater treatment facility construction permit, had to comply with the new requirements of the 2014 regulations. The Environmental Appeals Board and the Superior Court decided Artesian did not have to comply with the new requirements. The Supreme Court agreed and affirmed. View "Keep Our Wells Clean, et al. v. DNREC" on Justia Law

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The Antelope Valley Groundwater Cases (AVGC) proceeding litigated whether the water supply from natural and imported sources, which replenishes an alluvial basin from which numerous parties pumped water, was inadequate to meet the competing annual demands of those water producers, thereby creating an "overdraft" condition. Phelan ultimately became involved in the litigation as one of the thousands of entities and people who asserted they were entitled to draw water from the aquifer.The trial court subsequently defined the boundaries for the AVAA to determine which parties would be necessary parties to any global adjudication of water rights, and then determined that the aquifer encompassed within the AVAA boundaries (the AVAA basin) had sufficient hydrologic interconnectivity and conductivity to be defined as a single aquifer for purposes of adjudicating the competing groundwater rights claims. Settlement discussions ultimately produced an agreement among the vast majority of parties in which they settled their respective groundwater rights claims and agreed to support the contours of a proposed plan (the Physical Solution) designed to bring the AVAA basin into hydrological balance. Phelan, which provides water to its customers who are located outside the AVAA boundaries, became subject to the AVGC litigation because a significant source of its water is pumping from a well located in the AVAA basin.The Court of Appeal held that substantial evidence supports the judgment as to Phelan and Phelan was not deprived of its due process rights to present its claims. In this case, substantial evidence supports the conclusion that Physical Solution will bring the AVAA basin into balance; the trial court correctly rejected Phelan's fourth cause of action asserting it had acquired water rights as a "public use appropriator;" the phased decisional procedure did not deprive Phelan of due process; and the trial court correctly concluded that Phelan had no priority claim to return flows from native safe yield. View "Phelan Piñon Hills Community Services District v. California Water Service Co." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court granted a writ of mandamus sought by Omni Energy Group, LLC as to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management chief Eric Vendel ordering him to rule upon the validity of objections that were submitted concerning Omni's two saltwater injection well permit applications, holding that Omni was entitled to the writ.When the division chief did not render a decision on Omni's applications Omni filed a complaint against the division, Vendel, and department director Mary Mertz, sought a writ of mandamus compelling them to either issue or deny the permits. The Supreme Court granted a writ of mandamus, but instead of ordering Vendel immediately to render a decision on the applications, the Court ordered him to rule upon the validity of objections as required under Ohio Adm.Code 1501:9-3-06(H)(2)(c), holding (1) Omni had a clear legal right to, and Vendel had a clear legal duty to provide, a ruling on the validity of objections submitted against the applications; and (2) Omni did not suggest a basis for granting a writ of mandamus as to the division or to Mertz. View "State ex rel. Omni Energy Group, LLC v. Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil & Gas Resources Management" on Justia Law