Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

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A prospective farmer sought loans for a poultry farm to be built in Caroline County, Maryland. The lender applied for a Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan guarantee. Regulations interpreting the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. 4321, then required FSA to conduct an environmental assessment. FSA consulted with local, state, and federal agencies; published drafts of an environmental assessment for public comment; and considered a private environmental consulting firm's recommendations. FSA issued a “finding of no significant impact” rather than a more detailed environmental impact statement. FSA provided the loan guarantee. The farm has been operating since 2016 and houses 192,000 birds. Two years after the loan was approved, FWW, an environmental group, filed suit, alleging that the failure to prepare an environmental impact statement violated NEPA, purportedly injuring thousands of FWW members, including one who lived adjoining the farm and was subjected to loud noises, bright lights, foul odors, and flies. Another FWW member, who fishes nearby, asserted concerns about pollution and aesthetic and recreational impacts. The district court granted FSA summary judgment on the merits.The D.C. Circuit vacated and remanded for dismissal. FWW lacks standing; it failed to establish that its claims are redressable by favorable judicial action. It is not “likely, as opposed to merely speculative,” that vacatur of the loan guarantee would redress its members’ alleged injuries. The loan guarantee might have been a “substantial contributing factor” to the farm’s construction, but a new status quo existed when FWW filed suit. View "Food & Water Watch v. United States Department of Agriculture" on Justia Law

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Following two fires at its steel plant, U.S. Steel polluted the air. Because that pollution violated its Clean Air Act permits and regulations, it reported the incidents to the local officials who enforce that Act, the Allegheny County Health Department. The Clean Air Council, an environmental watchdog, sued, arguing that under CERCLA, U.S. Steel should have reported the pollution to the federal government too. CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act) exempts from reporting any “federally permitted” emissions, 42 U.S.C. 9603, including emissions “subject to” certain Clean Air Act permits and regulations. The Council argued that “subject to” means “obedient to” so that an emission cannot be “subject to” a permit or regulation that it violates.The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. In context, “subject to” means “governed or affected by.” Since U.S. Steel’s emissions were governed by a Clean Air Act permit, that means they were “federally permitted” under CERCLA and exempt from federal reporting. View "Clean Air Council v. United States Steel Corp." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the order of the district court denying Defendants' motion to dismiss this petition seeking to force Defendants to enact legislation that will compel Iowa farmers to take action that will significantly reduce levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Raccoon River, holding that the motion to dismiss should have been granted.Plaintiffs - two social justice organizations - brought this case against Defendants - the State, four state agencies, and multiple state officials - seeking declaratory relief and to compel the State to adopt a "Raccoon River remedial plan with mandatory agricultural water pollution controls." Defendants moved to dismiss the petition based on lack of standing, nonjusticiability, and failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The district court denied the motion. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) the petition's attenuated causation theory was insufficient to establish that Plaintiffs' members suffered a concrete injury at the hands of Defendants that a favorable court decision was likely to redress; and (2) Plaintiffs' effort to repurpose the public trust doctrine to solve a complex environmental problem presented a nonjusticiable political question. View "Iowa Citizens For Community Improvement v. State" on Justia Law

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Petitioner challenged the EPA's 2019 withdrawal of its 2014 proposed determination to exercise its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to restrict the ability of miners to operate in part of the Bristol Bay watershed in southwestern Alaska. The district court held that the EPA's decision was unreviewable pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 701(a)(2) and Heckler v. Chaney, 470 U.S. 821 (1985). The district court determined that neither the Clean Water Act nor the EPA's regulations include a meaningful legal standard governing the EPA's decision.Reviewing de novo, the panel held that (a) the Clean Water Act contains no meaningful legal standard in its broad grant of discretion to the EPA but that (b) the EPA's regulations do contain a meaningful legal standard. In particular, 40 C.F.R. 231.5(a) allows the EPA to withdraw a proposed determination only when an "unacceptable adverse effect" on specified resources is not "likely." Accordingly, the panel affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court's dismissal. The panel remanded for further proceedings to determine whether the EPA's withdrawal was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or contrary to law. View "Trout Unlimited v. Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp." on Justia Law

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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