Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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For almost 60 years, Schnitzer has operated a scrap-metal shredding and recycling facility. The Department of Toxic Substances Control acquired regulatory authority over metal-shredding facilities in the 1980s and issued Schnitzer certification under Code of Regulations, title 22, section 66260.200 2 (an (f) letter)--a conditional nonhazardous waste classification, allowing Schnitzer to handle and dispose of its treated metal-shredder waste as nonhazardous although the material otherwise meets the state’s definition of hazardous waste. In 2014, the Hazardous Waste Control Law (HWCL) Health & Safety Code 25150.82, specifically addressed metal-shredding facilities.The trial court concluded that section 25150.82 imposed a mandatory duty on the Department to rescind the (f) letters, such that Schnitzer must handle its treated metal-shredder waste as hazardous. The court of appeal reversed. After the adoption of section 25150.82, the Department commissioned a study, addressing environmental problems associated with metal shredding. Based on that study, the Department initiated regulatory actions aimed at metal-shredding facilities and their untreated waste. Metal shredders must comply with the HWCL but the study confirmed that once metal-shredding waste has been appropriately treated, it can be safely handled and disposed of as non-hazardous. Schnitzer’s (f) letter authorizing this practice was issued under an HWCL regulation, and there is no basis for concluding it does not comply with the HWCL. View "Athletics Investment Group, LLC v. Department of Toxic Substances Control" on Justia Law

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Sream manufactures water pipes (bongs). According to Sream, its packaging and labels have long included the statement that such products “should be sold, marketed or used for legal, non-prohibited use only.” Since July 2020, Sream has also placed the following label on its products as a “purely defensive” measure: “WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including arsenic, which is known ... to cause cancer."EHA filed a private enforcement action, alleging Sream had failed to provide a warning that its products exposed consumers to marijuana smoke in violation of California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (Health & Safety Code, 25249.5, “Proposition 65”). Section 25249.6 provides: “No person in the course of doing business shall knowingly and intentionally expose any individual to a chemical known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity without first giving clear and reasonable warning to such individual.” “Marijuana smoke” was added to the list of carcinogens in 2009.The trial court granted Sream judgment on the pleadings, finding EHA had not alleged that Sream’s products require marijuana to function or can only be used with marijuana. The court of appeal affirmed. EHA does not allege direct contact, but instead that individuals “may be exposed to marijuana smoke” if they use Sream’s water pipes with marijuana. Requiring a warning for possible indirect contact, depending on how a consumer chooses to use the product, would introduce confusion into that decision-making process. View "Environmental Health Advocates, Inc. v. Sream, Inc." on Justia Law

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The City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Board of Commissioners (collectively, Los Angeles) appealed a trial court judgment granting the petition of Mono County and the Sierra Club (collectively, Mono County) for a writ of mandate directing Los Angeles to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) before curtailing or reducing deliveries of irrigation water to certain lands Los Angeles leased to agricultural operators in Mono County. The trial court ruled that Los Angeles implemented a project in 2018 without complying with CEQA when: (1) it proposed new leases to the lessees that would not provide or allow water to be used for irrigation; and (2) while claiming it would study the environmental effects of the new leases, it nonetheless implemented that policy of reducing water for irrigation by allocating less water than usual under the prior leases that were still in effect. Los Angeles did not dispute that it was required to engage in CEQA analysis before implementing the new proposed leases, and it noted it issued a notice that it was undertaking environmental review of those new leases. But it argued that its 2018 water allocation was not part of that project and instead part of an earlier project, and the limitations period for challenging the earlier project has run. The Court of Appeal agreed with Los Angeles, the trial court's judgment was reversed. View "County of Mono v. City of Los Angeles" on Justia Law

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This case was the second appeal arising out of a dispute over the operation of a commercial self-storage facility (Treelake Storage) within a planned unit development in Granite Bay (Treelake Village). Silversword Properties, LLC (Silversword) owned the property upon which K.H. Moss Company and Moss Equity (collectively, Moss) operated Treelake Storage. In a separate but related lawsuit filed in 2017, Parkford Owners for a Better Community (Parkford) challenged Placer County’s (County) issuance of a building permit for the construction of an expansion of Treelake Storage, arguing that the County failed to comply with both the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the Planning and Zoning Law. The trial court concluded: (1) the County’s issuance of the building permit was ministerial rather than discretionary, and therefore CEQA did not apply; and (2) Parkford’s challenge under the Planning and Zoning Law was barred by the statute of limitations. Parkford appealed. In August 2020, a different panel of the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, concluding that completion of the challenged expansion of Treelake Storage prior to entry of judgment rendered moot Parkford’s challenge to the County’s issuance of a building permit authorizing construction of the expansion. In June 2021, the trial court concluded that the lawsuit here, filed by Parkford in 2018 and challenged the County’s issuance of a business license for the operation of Treelake Storage, was barred by both aspects of the doctrine of res judicata--claim and issue preclusion. The Court of Appeal concluded “Parkford I” was not a final judgment “on the merits,” therefore res judicata did not operate to bar this suit. Accordingly, judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Parkford Owners for a Better Community v. Windeshausen" on Justia Law

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In 2017, Bakewell submitted applications regarding its proposed development of "Campus Town," on approximately 122 acres of the former Fort Ord military base. The City of Seaside certified an environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act, Public Resources Code section 21000, and approved the project. After holding a public hearing, the Fort Ord Reuse Authority (FORA) determined that the project was consistent with the Fort Ord Reuse Plan. A nonprofit organization filed a petition for a writ of mandate, alleging that the Campus Town EIR violated CEQA and that FORA’s failure to provide the Committee with notices of the consistency hearing for the project violated the Committee’s right to due process. Bakewell argued that the CEQA causes of action were time-barred and the due process cause of action was moot.The court of appeal affirmed the dismissal of all claims. Under Emergency rule 9(b) the last day for the Committee to file its petition asserting CEQA causes of action was August 4, 2020; it was not filed until September 1, 2020. there is currently no requirement that development projects proposed for the former Fort Ord military base be consistent with the Fort Ord Reuse Plan, so the due process claim is moot. View "Committee for Sound Water & Land Development v. City of Seaside" on Justia Law

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In October 2018, several public interest groups petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to list four species of bumble bee as endangered species: the Crotch bumble bee, the Franklin bumble bee, the Suckley cuckoo bumble bee, and the Western bumble bee. In September 2019, petitioners challenged the Commission’s decision by filing a petition for writ of administrative mandate, asserting that the Commission’s determination that the four bumble bee species qualified for listing as candidate species under the California Endangered Species Act “violated the Commission’s legal duty, was a clear legal error, and was an abuse of discretion.” The trial court granted the writ petition. Because the Court of Appeal’s task in this appeal was to “review the Commission’s decision [designating the four bumble bee species in question as candidate species under the Act], rather than the trial court’s decision [granting the writ petition],” the Court focused on the trial court’s conclusion “the word ‘invertebrates’ as it appears in [s]ection 45’s definition of ‘fish’ clearly denotes invertebrates connected to a marine habitat, not insects such as bumble bees.” To this end, the Court of Appeal concluded a liberal interpretation of the Act, supported by the legislative history and the express language in section 2067 that a terrestrial mollusk and invertebrate was a threatened species “(express language we cannot ignore),” was that fish defined in section 45, as a term of art, was not limited solely to aquatic species. Accordingly, a terrestrial invertebrate, like each of the four bumble bee species, could be listed as an endangered or threatened species under the Act. Judgment was reversed. View "Almond Alliance of Cal. v. Fish and Game Com." on Justia Law

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United Water Conservation District (“District”) manages the groundwater resources in Ventura County. City of San Buenaventura (“City)” pumps groundwater from the District’s territory and sells it to residential and commercial customers.   The District collects a fee from the city by applying a fixed ratio of rates for nonagricultural users, such as the City, who pump groundwater for municipal and industrial (M&I) uses. The District charged such users three times more than agricultural (also known as “Ag”) users in accordance with Water Code section 75594.   The City filed its complaint for determination of invalidity and declaratory relief and petition for writ of mandate. The City alleged section 75594 is facially unconstitutional because the groundwater extraction rates charged for the water year 2019-2020 were not allocated to the City and other M&I users in a manner that bears a reasonable relationship to the City’s burdens on or benefits from the District’s activities.   The Second Appellate District affirmed the trial court’s judgment and held that the groundwater extraction charge is invalid as to nonagricultural users and must be set aside and section 75594 violates the California Constitution and is therefore unconstitutional. The threshold issue concerned the applicable standard of review. The court held that District’s rates for the 2019-2020 Water Year do not comply with proposition 26. The court reasoned that the constitutional requirement of a ‘fair or reasonable relationship’ is not resolved by application of a rigid judicial standard nor by application of a deferential standard of substantial evidence. View "City of San Buenaventura v. United Water Conservation Dist." on Justia Law

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Martha owns the largest undeveloped parcel of property in the vicinity of Tiburon, 110 acres on top of a mountain, overlooking much of the town and commanding a stunning view of San Francisco Bay. For decades, Martha has sought approval from the County of Marin to develop the property. Local opposition has been intense, including federal court litigation, starting in 1975 and resulting in stipulated judgments in 1976 and 2007. The county twice publicly agreed to approve Martha building no fewer than 43 units on the property. In 2017, the county certified an environmental impact report and conditionally approved Martha’s master plan for 43 single-family residences. The county believed its actions were compelled by the stipulated judgments.The town and residents sued, claiming that the county effectively agreed it would not follow or enforce state law, specifically, the California Environmental Quality Act, to prevent the development of an anticipated project. The court of appeal upheld the approvals. Governmental powers are indefeasible and inalienable; they cannot be surrendered, suspended, contracted away, waived, or otherwise divested. Government cannot bind the hands of its successors. In this case, the county did not abdicate its authority or otherwise undertake not to comply with CEQA. “With its eyes wide open,” the county complied with a binding, final judgment; that judgment in no way anticipated or legitimated ignoring CEQA. View "Tiburon Open Space Committee v. County of Marin" on Justia Law

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Crystal Geyser Water Company bought a closed water bottling facility and sought to revive it. Both the County and the City ultimately granted the necessary permits. This appeal concerned one of two lawsuits challenging these approvals, brought pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In one suit, Appellants We Advocate Thorough Environmental Review and Winnehem Wintu Tribe alleged that the County’s environmental review for the bottling facility was inadequate under CEQA. In another, they alleged that the City’s decision to issue the wastewater permit for the bottling plant was also improper under CEQA. In this case, the County served as the lead agency and considered the potential environmental impacts of permitting the bottling facility before it or any other public agency issued a permit for the facility. But in Appellants’ view, the County’s analysis was inadequate. Appellants alleged the County: (1) provided a misleading description of the project; (2) defined the project’s objectives in an impermissibly narrow manner; (3) improperly evaluated the project’s impacts to aesthetics, air quality, climate change, noise, and hydrology; and (4) approved the project even though it would result in violations of the County’s and the City’s general plans. The trial court rejected all Appellants’ arguments. But the Court of Appeal found two contentions had merit: (1) the County defined the project’s objectives in an overly narrow manner; and (2) the process for evaluating the project’s impacts to climate change was flawed. Relevant to this point, the County initially informed the public that the bottling project would result in greenhouse gas emissions of one amount, but, after the period for public comments had ended, the County disclosed that the project would actually result in emissions nearly double what it initially estimated. Under the circumstances of this case, the appellate court found the County should have allowed the public further opportunity to comment on the project after this late disclosure. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "We Advocate Through etc. v. County of Siskiyou" on Justia Law

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Crystal Geyser Water Company bought a closed water bottling facility and sought to revive it. Both the County and the City ultimately granted the necessary permits. This appeal concerned one of two lawsuits challenging these approvals, brought pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In one suit, Appellants We Advocate Thorough Environmental Review and Winnehem Wintu Tribe alleged that the County’s environmental review for the bottling facility was inadequate under CEQA. In another, they alleged that the City’s decision to issue the wastewater permit for the bottling plant was also improper under CEQA. The Court of Appeal addressed Appellants’ challenge to the City’s approval of the wastewater permit. The County served as the lead agency and the City served as one of several responsible agencies for the proposed bottling facility. According to Appellants, the City failed to comply with its obligations as a responsible agency for three reasons: (1) the City failed to make certain findings that were required under CEQA before issuing the wastewater permit for the bottling facility; (2) the City should have adopted mitigation measures to address some of the bottling facility’s environmental impacts before approving the permit; and (3) the City should have performed additional environmental review following a late revision to the permit. The trial court rejected all Appellants’ arguments. But the Court of Appeal agreed with Appellants on one point: The City should have made certain findings under CEQA before issuing the wastewater permit. Apart from needing to make one or more of these findings for each significant impact, the City also needed to supply a brief explanation of the rationale for each finding. The City, however, never complied with these requirements. “It instead, in a single sentence, said only this: The City has reviewed the County’s report on the project and ‘finds no unmitigated adverse environmental impacts relating to the alternate waste discharge disposal methods.’” Because the Court found this brief statement inadequate to satisfy CEQA, judgment was reversed. View "We Advocate Through Environmental Review v. City of Mt. Shasta" on Justia Law