Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

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Brace, a farmer, owns hundreds of acres in Erie County, Pennsylvania. He cleared 30 acres of wetlands, draining it to grow crops. In 1994, the Third Circuit affirmed that Brace had violated the Clean Water Act. In 2012, Brade bought 14 additional acres of wetlands. Again, he engaged in clearing, excavation, and filling without required permits. During a second suit under the Act, Brace’s counsel submitted perfunctory pleadings and failed to cooperate in discovery, repeatedly extending and missing deadlines. Counsel submitted over-length briefs smuggling in extra-record materials. The court repeatedly struck Brace’s materials but generally chose leniency. Eventually, the court struck Brace’s opposition to summary judgment after analyzing the “Poulis factors,” then granted the government summary judgment on liability, holding that Brace had violated the Act. The court ordered Brace to submit a proposed deed restriction and restoration plan.The Third Circuit rejected Brace’s appeal. While “it stretches credulity [to believe that Brace had] no idea how counsel [wa]s conducting this case,” the court gave Brace the benefit of the doubt. Brace’s lawyer’s misconduct forced the government to waste time and money “deciphering incomprehensible pleadings, scouring through noncompliant briefs, and moving again and again for compliance" to no avail. Counsel acted in bad faith; repeated orders to show cause, warnings, and threats of sanctions did not deter counsel’s chronic misbehavior. The sanction “was hardly an abuse of discretion.” View "United States v. Brace" on Justia Law

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The Grand Cayman Blue Iguana is protected by the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. 1531, and by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which ban their collection, trade, and export. The Secretary of the Interior may permit “any” otherwise prohibited conduct “to enhance the propagation or survival” of a protected species. The nonprofit Phoenix Herpetological Society applied for permits to export four blue iguanas to a Danish zoo and continue its captive-bred wildlife program at its Arizona facility. For export, the Fish and Wildlife Service must find that “proposed export would not be detrimental to the survival of the species.” The Service also evaluates—under Endangered Species Act criteria—whether a permit “would be likely to reduce the threat of extinction facing the species.” The applicant bears the burden of showing that its specimens were lawfully acquired, including lawful importation of the ancestors of specimens it has bred.The D.C. Circuit affirmed the denial of the permits. The agency determined that exporting the iguanas would not be “detrimental” to the species but that exporting them would not “reduce the threat of extinction” for the species. The court concluded that its reasoning was not inconsistent. The Service appropriately acknowledged the prior permits and explained that inconsistent assertions about the parental stock raised new questions about lawful acquisition. View "Phoenix Herpetological Society, Inc. v. Fish and Wildlife Service" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Service in an action challenging the Service's decision reversing its previous decision that the Pacific walrus qualified for listing as an endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The panel found that the Service did not sufficiently explain why it changed its prior position. The panel concluded that the essential flaw in the 2017 Decision is its failure to offer more than a cursory explanation of why the findings underlying its 2011 Decision no longer apply. The panel explained that if, as is the case here, the agency's "new policy rests upon factual findings that contradict those which underlay its prior policy," a sufficiently detailed justification is required. In this case, the panel found insufficient the Service's briefs regarding localized prey depletion, a study showing that female walruses can travel longer distances than expected to forage, stampede-related mortalities, habitat loss generally, and subsistence harvest. View "Center for Biological Diversity v. Haaland" on Justia Law

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The issue in this case relates to Captain Sam’s Spit on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Twice before, the Administrative Law Court (ALC), over the objections of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), granted permits for the construction of an extremely large erosion control device in a critical area. Both times, the South Carolina Supreme Court found the ALC erred. In this third appeal, the Coastal Conservation League raised numerous issues with respect to the approval of another “gargantuan structure” designed to combat the erosive forces carving into the sandy river shoreline, especially along its narrowest point called the "neck," in order to allow a developer to construct a road to facilitate development of fifty houses. DHEC, reversing its prior stance, issued four permits to construct the steel wall, which the ALC upheld. The Supreme Court found the ALC erred in three respects: (1) in accepting DHEC's narrow, formulaic interpretation of whether a permit that indisputably impacts a critical area warrants the more stringent review normally accorded to such structures; (2) in relying on the protection of Beachwalker Park to justify the construction of the entire wall; and (3) in determining the public will benefit from the wall based on purely economic reasons. Accordingly, judgment was reversed. View "SC Coastal Conservation League v. SCDHEC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed suit against CCMC, alleging that CCMC failed to obtain the proper construction permit under the Clean Air Act (CAA), and failed to implement the requisite dust control plan for the Coyote Creek Mine, which is adjacent to plaintiffs' ranch. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of CCMC, concluding the federal regulations imposing permitting and dust control requirements do not apply to CCMC's operations.The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment for CCMC and agreed with the district court that the regulations, standing alone, are ambiguous. The court also concluded that the most reasonable interpretation of the relevant regulations is that the coal pile is not "in" CCMC's coal processing plant. Therefore, the district court did not err in granting summary judgment to CCMC on the basis that the coal pile is not subject to Subpart Y regulations, which would have required a major source permit and a fugitive dust control plan. View "Voigt v. Coyote Creek Mining Co., LLC" on Justia Law

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In the 1950s, a Watertown building began manufacturing operations, using PCBs. Congress banned the manufacture of PCBs in 1979. In 2004, the plant closed. In 2010, SPX commissioned an environmental study and confirmed that PCBs permeated the property. SPX's proposed remediation plan was approved by the EPA. SPX subsequently decided to demolish the building. In 2014, SPX notified the EPA of its demolition plans and its intent to complete a “self-implementing on-site cleanup” under the implementing regulation for the Toxic Substances Control Act. The contractors broke ground before EPA approval.The Liebhart residential properties adjoin the facility. The Liebharts claim that no dust-suppression methods were used. After the demolition work ended, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) ordered SPX to take soil samples, which indicated that PCBs were present on the Liebharts’ properties. Many samples exceeded the Wisconsin law residential standard. SPX submitted proposed remediation plans.The Liebharts sued SPX and its contractors under the Toxic Substances Control Act, 15 U.S.C. 2601, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 42 U.S.C. 6901. They argued that compliance with DNR guidance was not enough; the remediation needed to comply with the U.S. EPA’s “PCB Spill Cleanup Policy.”The district court granted the defendants summary judgment, refusing to issue an injunction. The DNR authorized and began to supervise the clean-up. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Although there are colorable arguments that the DNR’s plan is not ideal, more is required to find that a court abused its discretion by withholding equitable relief. The Liebharts have not established substantive inadequacies in the state plan or irregularities in the DNR’s enforcement. View "Liebhart v. SPX Corporation" on Justia Law

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The Ordot Dump was constructed on Guam by the Navy in the 1940s. Both the federal government and Guam allegedly deposited waste at Ordot. A 2004 consent decree between the EPA and Guam resolved litigation concerning Clean Water Act violations.About 13 years later, Guam sued the U.S. under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9601. A section 107(a) action sought recovery of the costs of a “removal or remedial action” from the government based on its ownership or operation of the site at the time of the disposal of hazardous substances. A section 113(f) action sought "contribution," alleging that Guam “has resolved its liability to the United States…for some or all of a response action or for some or all of the costs of such action in [a] settlement." The D. C. Circuit held that cost recovery was not available if a party could have brought a contribution action and found the contribution claim untimely under a three-year limitations period in light of the 2004 settlement.A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. A settlement of environmental liabilities must resolve a CERCLA-specific liability to give rise to a section 113(f)(3)(B) contribution action. That remedial measures under different environmental statutes might functionally overlap with a CERCLA response action does not justify reinterpreting section 113(f)(3)(B)’s phrase “resolved its liability . . . for some or all of a response action” to instead mean “settled an environmental liability that might have been actionable under CERCLA.” A party may seek CERCLA contribution only after settling CERCLA-specific claims, as opposed to resolving environmental liability under another law. View "Guam v. United States" on Justia Law

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Lakeshore Camping, Gary Medler, and Shorewood Association petitioned for contested case hearings before an administrative-law judge (ALJ), to challenge permits and a special exception granted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (now the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE)) to Dune Ridge SA LP. In February 2014, Dune Ridge, a real estate developer, had purchased a 130-acre plot of land along the shore of Lake Michigan located in a critical dune area and therefore was subject to certain regulations under the sand dunes protection and management act (SDPMA). EGLE issued the requisite permits and special exceptions needed for development of the property to Dune Ridge, and in October 2014, Lakeshore Camping, Medler, and Shorewood filed their petitions under MCL 324.35305(1). Around September 2015, other individuals moved to intervene in the case as aggrieved adjacent property owners. The ALJ also allowed Lakeshore Group, an unincorporated nonprofit association, to intervene after determining that it had “representational standing” through Charles Zolper, one of its members. The ALJ denied intervention to some of these parties and ultimately dismissed the matter, concluding that the remaining petitioners and intervenors lacked standing. Lakeshore Camping and other petitioners were eventually dismissed from the case, leaving Jane Underwood, Zolper, and Lakeshore Group as the sole remaining petitioners. Dune Ridge then moved for partial summary disposition, seeking to dismiss Underwood because she no longer owned property immediately adjacent to Dune Ridge’s property. In July 2016, the ALJ granted the motion. In September 2016, Dune Ridge sold 15 acres of its property, including the land immediately adjacent to Zolper’s property, to Vine Street Cottages, LLC. Dune Ridge then moved for summary disposition as to Zolper, and the ALJ dismissed Zolper and Lakeshore Group, finding that they no longer had standing because Zolper was no longer an immediately adjacent property owner. Underwood, Zolper, Lakeshore Group, and others appealed the ALJ’s decision to the circuit court. The issue this case presented for the Michigan Supreme Court’s review centered on whether the dismissed petitioners lost their eligibility for a contested hearing based on the facts presented. To this, the Supreme Court answered “no:” because the statute provides no means to deprive an eligible petitioner of a contested hearing, petitioners were entitled to a contested case hearing. Judgment was reversed and remanded to the administrative tribunal for a formal contested case hearing. View "Lakeshore Group v. Dept. of Enviro. Quality" on Justia Law

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The California Water Resources Control Board (Board) promulgated a regulation setting the drinking water standard for TCP in 2017. Kern County Taxpayers Association and California Manufacturers and Technology Association (Association) challenged the regulation by petition for writ of ordinary mandate. The trial court denied the petition. The Association appealed, arguing the Board failed to comply with the Act’s requirement that new drinking water standards be “economically feasible.” The Association also argued the Board failed to comply with the economic impact assessment requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act. The Court of Appeal rejected both contentions and affirmed. View "Cal. Manufacturers & Tech. etc. v. State Water Resources Control Bd." on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment for the FWS in an action brought by Friends of Animals, challenging FWS's rule, 50 C.F.R. 424.14(b), which required that affected states receive 30-day notice of an intent to file a petition to list an endangered species. Friends alleges that the FWS used the "pre-file notice rule" to improperly reject Friends' petition to list the Pryor Mountain wild horse as a threatened or endangered distinct population segment, and argues that the rule revision violates the Endangered Species Act's (ESA) requirements for review of petitions and is inconsistent with the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).The panel concluded that the pre-file notice rule is inconsistent with the statutory scheme of the ESA and thus does not survive the second step of the Chevron test. The panel explained that the FWS used the pre-file notice rule to create a procedural hurdle to petitioners that does not comport with the ESA. In this case, the FWS used the pre-file notice rule to consider a petition that was properly submitted, complied with the substantive requirements in all other respects, and was otherwise entitled to a 90-day finding, while relying on an unreasonable justification that does not accord with the aims of the ESA. Therefore, FWS's denial of the petition was arbitrary and in excess of its statutory jurisdiction. Accordingly, the court remanded to the district court to enter summary judgment in favor of Friends. View "Friends of Animals v. Haaland" on Justia Law