Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

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The Spokane River originates at the outlet of Coeur d’Alene Lake in Idaho and flows west for approximately 111 miles to the Columbia River in eastern Washington. Flows in the river have been declining due to increased groundwater use from the aquifer. The Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) ceased issuing new groundwater rights from the aquifer in the 1990s. Avista Corporation operated five hydroelectric projects located on the Spokane River in northern Idaho and eastern Washington. The uppermost project on the river, the Post Falls development, consisted of three dams on three channels with natural islands connecting the structures. The development impounded nine miles of the Spokane River to the outlet of Coeur d’Alene Lake. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on Ecology's authority to set minimum instream flows for the rivers and streams in Washington, and the parameters of that authority under RCW 90.22.010 and RCW 90.54.020(3)(a). At issue was whether Ecology properly adopted a rule, WAC 173-557-050, setting a summertime minimum instream flow rate for the Spokane River at 850 cfs (cubic feet per second) from June 16 to September 30. The Supreme Court upheld that rule, determining that the Agency's challengers failed to carry their burden to show the rule’s invalidity. The Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision, which reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the challengers’ suit. View "Ctr. for Envtl. Law & Policy v. Dep't of Ecology" on Justia Law

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Ohio and Tennessee filed suit in 2015 to enjoin the Clean Water Rule, which purported to interpret the phrase “waters of the United States,” as used in the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1362(7), and, in 2018, sought a preliminary injunction against the Rule’s enforcement within their borders. In a 2018 Rule, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers suspended enforcement of the 2015 Rule; the Agencies gave notice of their intent to repeal (rather than merely suspend) the 2015 Rule. In 2019, the court denied the states’ motion with respect to the 2015 Rule on the ground that, suspended or not, the states had not shown a likelihood of imminent, irreparable harm. The Agencies formally repealed the 2015 rule. In 2020 they replaced the 2015 Rule with the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule.”The Sixth Circuit dismissed the states’ appeal as moot. Since the district court’s decision, the Agencies have repealed and replaced the rule that the states sought preliminarily to enjoin. The Agencies have already provided the states with relief; a preliminary injunction against the 2015 Rule’s enforcement in Ohio and Tennessee would lack any practical effect. There is no reasonable possibility that the 2015 Rule will again become effective in Ohio or Tennessee while this case remains pending. View "Ohio v. United States Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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The City of Flint and city and state officials allegedly caused, sustained, and covered up the poisoning of the people of Flint. Plaintiffs filed a 2017 “Master Complaint,” containing the allegations and claims made by plaintiffs across the coordinated litigation; “short-form” complaints charted certain components of the Master Complaint, including named defendants, alleged injuries, and claims. In this case, the district court declined to dismiss all defendants other than former State Treasurer Andy Dillon.Earlier in 2020, the Sixth Circuit, in "Waid," decided that the same officials who are defendants in this case plausibly violated plaintiffs’ substantive due process right to bodily integrity and are not entitled to qualified immunity and rejected Flint’s and Michigan Governor Whitmer’s arguments that the Eleventh Amendment required their dismissal. Defendant Johnson argued that the allegations against him in this case differently than those levied against him in Waid. The court concluded that there is no reason to treat Johnson differently. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting an argument that higher-ups should be treated differently than officials making decisions on the ground. . View "In re Flint Water Cases" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the district court's entry of summary judgment in favor of Elk Grove Development Company (Elk Grove) and the Elk Grove Homeowners Association (HOA) and entry of an injunction enjoining the Four Corners County Water and Sewer District from using the Elk Grove Subdivision's water "sourced from any of the wells located within the Subdivision and from the Water Right for use upon property outside the Subdivision, holding that the district court erred in determining that the Subdivision Covenant was a reasonable restraint upon the alienation of a water right.On appeal, the Water District argued that the Covenant was an unreasonable restraint on alienation because it usurped the State's jurisdiction over its water and violated the state water law requirement that waters be put to beneficial use. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the district court erred to the extent that it held the Covenant was a reasonable restraint on the alienation of the Subdivision's water and Water Right and so enjoined the Water District. View "Elk Grove Development Co. v. Four Corners County Water & Sewer District" on Justia Law

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A federal agency may not create an "aquaculture," or fish farming, regime in the Gulf of Mexico pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling that the Fisheries' challenged aquaculture rule exceeds the agency's statutory authority. The court explained that the Act neither says nor suggests that the agency may regulate aquaculture; the court rejected the agency's interpretation of Congress's silence on the matter as an invitation; explained that Congress does not delegate authority merely by not withholding it; and the court rejected the agency's argument that the Act's definition of "fishing" gives it authority to regulate aquaculture. The court noted that if anyone is to expand the forty-year-old Magnuson-Stevens Act to reach aquaculture for the first time, it must be Congress. View "Gulf Fishermens Ass'n v. National Marine Fisheries Service" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's order denying EPIC's request for a preliminary injunction, challenging the Forest Service's approval of the Ranch Fire Roadside Hazard Tree Project in Northern California. In this case, rather than preparing an Environmental Assessment (EA) or an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Project, the Forest Service relied on a categorical exclusion (CE) for road repair and maintenance in 36 C.F.R. 220.6(d)(4).The panel held that EPIC will likely succeed on the merits of its claim that an extensive commercial logging project that includes felling large, partially burned merchantable trees is not considered "repair and maintenance" within the meaning of section 220.6(d)(4). The panel also held that EPIC will suffer irreparable, though limited harm. Furthermore, EPIC has demonstrated that the balance of the equities and the public interest weigh in its favor. Accordingly, the panel remanded for further proceedings. View "Environmental Protection Information Center v. Carlson" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit dismissed, based on lack of Article III standing, a petition for review of the TCEQ's decision granting air permits to Rio Grande LNG. Petitioners, two membership organizations, ask the court to vacate the agency's decision and order either a contested-case hearing before the SOAH or the denial of the permits.The court held that petitioners have not satisfied their burden to show their members' injuries in fact. In this case, petitioners' claims -- that their individual members who live, work, and drive within a roughly fourteen-mile radius of the proposed facility will suffer an increased risk of harm that those living further away will not suffer -- are too generalized and petitioners have not produced enough evidence to show an actual or imminent harm. The court also held that, even if petitioners' members did identify specific risks, there is no evidence of the extent to which those risks would be increased for those members by the expected emissions. Furthermore, petitioners' claim that the proposed facility would cause ozone levels to be very close to violating the federally mandated levels failed to identify what specific health risks their members expect to suffer. Finally, to the extent petitioners argue that the denial of a contested-case hearing is a procedural harm separate and distinct from the harms they expect to be caused by the proposed facility, the court rejected that alleged injury as a basis for standing. View "Shrimpers and Fishermen of the RGV v. Texas Commission on Environmental Quality" on Justia Law

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Under California Public Resources Code section 21167.6, documents "shall" be in the record in a CEQA challenge to an environmental impact report (EIR). The County of San Diego (County), as lead agency for the Newland Sierra project, no longer had "all" such correspondence, nor all "internal agency communications" related to the project. If those communications were by e-mail and not flagged as "official records," the County's computers automatically deleted them after 60 days. When project opponents propounded discovery to obtain copies of the destroyed e-mails and related documents to prepare the record of proceedings, the County refused to comply. After referring the discovery disputes to a referee, the superior court adopted the referee's recommendations to deny the motions to compel. The referee concluded that although section 21167.6 specified the contents of the record of proceedings, that statute did not require that such writings be retained. In effect, the referee interpreted section 21167.6 to provide that e-mails encompassed within that statute were mandated parts of the record - unless the County destroyed them first. The Court of Appeal disagreed with that interpretation, "[a] thorough record is fundamental to meaningful judicial review." The Court held the County should not have destroyed such e-mails, even under its own policies. The referee's erroneous interpretation of section 21167.6 was central to the appeals before the Court of Appeal. The Court issued a writ of mandate to direct the superior court to vacate its orders denying the motions to compel, and after receiving input from the parties, reconsider those motions. View "Golden Door Properties, LLC v. Super. Ct." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed a citizen suit against Exxon, seeking to recover from more than 16,000 Clean Air Act violations arising from the Baytown, Texas complex.The Fifth Circuit held that Clean Air Act plaintiffs must prove standing for each violation in support of their claims. The court held that the evidence supports the district court's findings of injury, traceability, and redressability for a number of the violations. However, a limited remand is needed for the district court to determine what other violations could have contributed to plaintiffs' members' injuries and then to tabulate its findings. The court noted that it does not require line-by-line findings, but that the district court may group violations. Furthermore, plaintiffs have standing for at least some of the violations that Exxon asserts affirmative defenses against. The court remanded for findings on whether Exxon proved its Act of God defense for the relatively small number of violations occurring during Hurricane Ike. The court affirmed the district court's rejection of Exxon's Rule 52(b) motion, because Exxon failed to meet its burden in supporting its no-fault defenses by failing to identify evidence establishing that it met the relevant criteria for each individual emissions event. Because the court remanded for the district court to determine the number of violations for which plaintiffs have standing, as well as whether Exxon proved its Act of God defense for any violations, the court will also have to reassess the penalties. View "Environment Texas Citizen Lobby, Inc. v. ExxonMobil Corp." on Justia Law

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Water users and property owners in Flint, Michigan (plaintiffs) brought a class action at the Court of Claims against defendants Governor Rick Snyder, the state of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (the MDEQ), and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (collectively, the state defendants) and against defendants Darnell Earley and Jerry Ambrose (the city defendants). Plaintiffs alleged the Governor and these officials had knowledge of a 2011 study commissioned by Flint officials that cautioned against the use of Flint River water as a source of drinking water. In 2014, under the direction of Earley and the MDEQ, Flint switched its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) to the Flint River. Less than a month after the switch, state officials began to receive complaints from Flint water users about the quality of the water coming out of their taps. Plaintiffs alleged state officials failed to take any significant remedial measures to address the growing health threat and instead continued to downplay the health risk, advising Flint water users that it was safe to drink the tap water while simultaneously arranging for state employees in Flint to drink water from water coolers installed in state buildings. The state and city defendants separately moved for summary disposition on all four counts, arguing that plaintiffs had failed to satisfy the statutory notice requirements in MCL 600.6431 of the Court of Claims Act, failed to allege facts to establish a constitutional violation for which a judicially inferred damages remedy was appropriate, and failed to allege facts to establish the elements of any of their claims. The Court of Claims granted defendants’ motions for summary disposition on plaintiffs’ causes of action under the state-created-danger doctrine and the Fair and Just Treatment Clause of the 1963 Michigan Constitution, art 1, section 17, after concluding that neither cause of action was cognizable under Michigan law. However, the Court of Claims denied summary disposition on all of defendants’ remaining grounds, concluding that plaintiffs satisfied the statutory notice requirements and adequately pleaded claims of inverse condemnation and a violation of their right to bodily integrity. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Court of Claims. After hearing oral argument on defendants’ applications, a majority of the Michigan Supreme Court expressly affirmed the Court of Appeals’ conclusion regarding plaintiffs’ inverse-condemnation claim. The Court of Appeals opinion was otherwise affirmed by equal division. View "Mays v. Snyder" on Justia Law