Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

by
This appeal stemmed from an application for a conditional water storage right filed by United Water and Sanitation District, a special water district formed in Elbert County, Colorado, acting through the United Water Acquisition Project Water Activity Enterprise (“United”). United sought to secure various water rights in Weld County. United’s original applications were consolidated in a set of four cases. In response to a motion for determination of questions of law from opposer Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company (“FRICO”) in the consolidated cases, the District Court for Water Division 1 (“water court”) concluded that United’s applications failed to demonstrate non-speculative intent to appropriate water. In response to this ruling, United withdrew its applications in the consolidated cases and, a week later, filed a new application in Case No. 16CW3053 for a conditional water storage right that was the subject of this appeal. Pertinent here, United sought to appropriate water for use in a proposed residential development in another county. In support of its new application for a conditional storage right, United offered a new, purportedly binding contract with the landowners of the proposed development. United also claimed for the first time that its status as a special district qualified it for the governmental planning exception to the anti-speculation doctrine. FRICO opposed United's application, and the water court determined United's new application likewise failed to demonstrated non-speculative intent to appropriate water. The water court found that United was acting as a water broker to sell to third parties for their use, and not as a governmental agency seeking to procure water to serve its own municipal customers. Consequently, the water court held, United did not qualify for the governmental planning exception to the anti-speculation doctrine. United appealed. But concurring with the water court's judgment, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed: United was ineligible for the governmental planning exception to the anti-speculation doctrine. View "United Water & Sanitation Dist. v. Burlington Ditch Reservoir & Land Co." on Justia Law

by
Environmental groups challenged the constitutionality of Public Resources Code section 25531, which limits judicial review of decisions by the Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission on the siting of thermal power plants. Section 25531(a) provides that an Energy Commission siting decision is “subject to judicial review by the Supreme Court of California.” The plaintiffs contend this provision abridges the original jurisdiction of the superior courts and courts of appeal over mandate petitions, as conferred by California Constitution Article VI, section 10. Section 25531(b) provides that findings of fact in support of a Commission siting determination “are final,” allegedly violating the separation of powers doctrine by depriving courts of their essential power to review administrative agency findings (Cal. Const., Art. III, section 3; Art. VI, section 1).The court of appeal affirmed summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. The Article VI grant of original jurisdiction includes the superior courts and courts of appeal and may not be circumscribed by statute, absent some other constitutional provision. Legislative amendments to section 25531 have broken the once-tight link between the regulatory authority of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Energy Commission power plant siting decisions, such that the plenary power Article XII grants the Legislature over PUC activities no longer authorizes section 25531(a). Section 25531(b) violates the judicial powers clause by preventing courts from reviewing whether substantial evidence supports the Commission’s factual findings. View "Communities for a Better Environment v. Energy Resources Conservation & Development Commission" on Justia Law

by
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 Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment for CCMC, because the federal regulations imposing permitting and dust control requirements do not apply to CCMC's operations. The court agreed with the district court in determining that the regulations are ambiguous or in ultimately concluding that the regulations, combined with the guidance, do not resolve the relevant inquiry. The court agreed with the district court that the best interpretative aid to determine whether Subpart Y - Standards of Performance for Coal Preparation and Processing Plants, 40 C.F.R. pt. 60, applies to the coal pile is the NDDOH permitting decision, which concluded that the coal pile is not part of the coal processing plant and thus is not subject to Subpart Y. Furthermore, that decision is entitled to deference.The court also held that, on the record before it and given the overarching framework of the CAA, including the cooperative relationship between the EPA and the states, the district court appropriately gave deference to the NDDOH permitting decision to resolve the regulations' ambiguity in favor of CCMC. 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

by
The Supreme Court affirmed the district court's vacatur of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality's (DEQ) 2017 issuance of Montana Pollution Discharge Elimination System (MPDES) permit to Montanore Minerals Corp. (MMC), holding that the DEQ unlawfully relied upon a 1992 order of the Board of Health and Environmental Sciences (BHES) when issuing the 2017 permit.Specifically, the Supreme Court held (1) the district court correctly concluded that the 1992 BHES order expired prior to DEQ issuing the 2017 permit; and (2) because DEQ relied upon an expired BHES order when it issued the 2017 permit, the permit was not validly issued and must be vacated. View "Montana Environmental Information Center v. Montana Department of Environmental Quality" on Justia Law

by
The Fourth Circuit granted Ergon's petition for review of the EPA's decision denying Ergon's petition to be exempt from the EPA's administration of a renewable fuel standard program. The court previously vacated and remanded the EPA's denial as arbitrary and capricious. On remand, the EPA denied Ergon's petition again. In this appeal, Ergon argues that the EPA repeated the errors the court previously identified in Ergon I by again relying on the DOE's facially deficient scoring metrics to deny the petition.The court reviewed the record and concluded that, although the EPA's post-remand decision largely cured the problems the court previously identified, Ergon has provided sufficient evidence undermining one aspect of the EPA's decision. In this case, part of the EPA's basis for accepting the DOE's reasoning as to Section 1(b) of the DOE's Scoring Matrix has been reliably called into question, and thus the EPA's decision was arbitrary and capricious. Because of the threshold problem with the rationale provided for the Section 1(b) scoring, the court did not reach the secondary issue regarding the apparently contradictory definitions of "refinery" used in Section 1(b) and 2(a). Accordingly, the court vacated and remanded for further proceedings. View "Ergon-West Virginia, Inc. v. Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

by
The Alabama Supreme Court granted certiorari review to Lance LeFleur, in his official capacity as director ("the director") of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management ("ADEM"), seeking review of the Court of Civil Appeals' decision in Smith v. LeFleur, [Ms. 2180375, October 11, 2019] ___ So. 3d ___ (Ala. Civ. App. 2019), in which the Court of Civil Appeals held that ADEM did not have the authority to amend Ala. Admin. Code (ADEM), Rule 335-13-4-.15, Rule 335-13-4-.22, or Rule 335- 13-4-.23 to permit the use of alternative-cover materials at landfills ("the alternative-cover-materials rules"). Appellants Ronald Smith, Latonya Gipson, and William Gipson all resided near the Stone's Throw Landfill and Arrowhead Landfills located in Tallapoosa County. Since appellants lived in their respective homes, ADEM permitted the operators of the Stone's Throw Landfill to use at least one material other than earth to cover solid waste deposited in the landfill. In their lawsuit, appellants sought a declaration that ADEM impermissibly adopted the Ala. Admin. Code (ADEM), allowing landfill operators to use alternative materials to cover solid waste in violation of the Solid Wastes and Recyclable Materials Management Act ('the SWRMMA'), Ala. Code 1975, sections 22-27-1 et seq., which, they argued, authorized the use of only earth to cover solid waste. The Court of Civil Appeals found appellants had standing to contest the alternative-cover-materials rules, and that ADEM exceeded its statutory authority. The Supreme Court concluded appellants did not present substantial evidence to establish standings. The trial court therefore properly granted the directors' motion for summary judgment, and properly denied appellants' motion for summary judgment. The Court reversed the Court of Civil Appeals which held to the contrary. View "Ex parte Alabama Department of Environmental Management." on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff R.L. Vallee, Inc. appealed the Environmental Division’s decision granting an Act 250 permit to the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) for a highway project involving the reconfiguration of an interstate exit. Vallee argued the court applied the incorrect standard in analyzing phosphorus discharges under Act 250 Criterion 1, and improperly evaluated the evidence of phosphorus and chloride discharges under Criterion 1. The Vermont Supreme Court found the Environmental Division applied the correct legal standard to evaluate discharges, and properly considered the evidence before it in determining that the project complies with Criterion 1. View "In re Diverging Diamond Interchange Act 250 (R.L. Vallee, Inc.)" on Justia Law

by
The First Circuit affirmed the order of the federal district court allowing Rhode Island's motion to return to state court its state court complaint against several oil and gas companies for damage caused by fossil fuels, holding that the allegations in Rhode Island's complaint did not give rise to federal-officer jurisdiction.In 2018, faced with rising sea levels and other property damage from extreme weather events caused by climate change, Rhode Island sued, in state court, several oil and gas companies for damage caused by fossil fuels while those companies misled the public about their products' true risks. The oil companies removed the case to federal district court. Rhode Island moved for the case to be remanded to state court. The district court granted the motion and ordered the case remanded to state court. The First Circuit affirmed, holding that the district court did not err in finding that there was no subject matter jurisdiction under the federal-officer removal statute. View "State of Rhode Island v. Shell Oil Products Co., LLC" on Justia Law

by
The U.S. EPA promulgated new landfill emissions guidelines in 2016. Each state was required to submit a plan for implementing the new guidelines. The EPA was to approve or disapprove each state plan. For states that failed to submit a plan, the EPA had to promulgate a federal plan that would govern implementation in those states. The deadline for EPA issue the federal plan was set by regulation for November 2017. The EPA missed the deadline. Several states sued to force EPA to promulgate its federal plan. EPA responded to the suit and also began the rulemaking process to extend its regulatory deadline. While that rulemaking was underway, the district court entered an injunction requiring EPA to promulgate the federal plan within six months (November 2019). Months later, the EPA finalized the rulemaking process, extending its regulatory deadline by two years to August 2021. The district court declined to modify the injunction.The Ninth Circuit reversed. The district court abused its discretion in denying the EPA’s request for relief because the new regulations constituted a change in law, and removed the legal basis for the court’s deadline. A shift in the legal landscape that removed the basis for an order warranted modification of the injunction. The court rejected an argument that courts must look beyond the new regulations and conduct a broad, fact-specific inquiry into whether modification prevented inequity. View "California v. United States Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiffs, two young Oregonians, concerned about the effects of climate change and their guardians, filed suit against the Governor and the State of Oregon (collectively, the State), contending the State was required to act as a trustee under the public trust doctrine to protect various natural resources in Oregon from substantial impairment due to greenhouse gas emissions and resultant climate change and ocean acidification. Among other things, plaintiffs asked the circuit court to specify the natural resources protected by the public trust doctrine and to declare that the State had a fiduciary duty, which it breached, to prevent substantial impairment of those resources caused by emissions of greenhouse gases. Plaintiffs also asked for an injunction ordering the State to: (1) prepare an annual accounting of Oregon’s carbon dioxide emissions; and (2) implement a carbon reduction plan protecting the natural resources, which the court would supervise to ensure enforcement. The circuit court granted the State’s motion for summary judgment and denied plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment, concluding the public trust doctrine did not encompass most of the natural resources that plaintiffs identified, and did not require the State to take the protective measures that plaintiffs sought. In 2015, the circuit court entered a general judgment dismissing the action, and the Court of Appeals vacated the judgment and remanded for the circuit court to enter a judgment, consistent the Court of Appeals opinion, declaring the parties’ rights. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that as a matter of common law, the public trust doctrine was not fixed and, that it must evolve to address the undisputed circumstances presented, namely, that climate change was damaging Oregon’s natural resources. They argued the doctrine was not limited to the natural resources that the circuit court identified and, the doctrine should cover other natural resources beyond those that have been traditionally protected. The Oregon Supreme Court held the public trust doctrine currently encompassed navigable waters and the submerged and submersible lands underlying those waters. "Although the public trust is capable of expanding to include more natural resources, we do not extend the doctrine to encompass other natural resources at this time." The Supreme Court also declined to adopt plaintiffs’ position that, under the doctrine, the State had the same fiduciary duties that a trustee of a common-law private trust would have, such as a duty to prevent substantial impairment of trust resources. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, which vacated the judgment of the circuit court. The matter was remanded the circuit court to enter a judgment consistent with Supreme Court's judgment. View "Chernaik v. Brown" on Justia Law