Justia Environmental Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals
San Juan Citizens Alliance v. Stiles
The issue central to this appeal involves the Northern San Juan Basin Coal Bed Methane project (Project) which was approved by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Project contemplates the construction of numerous gas wells within the San Juan National Forest and on other federal lands. San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) and four other environmental advocacy groups filed suit in district court in Colorado for alleged violations of the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The suit contends that the 2007 record of decision approving the Project was unlawful. Several companies holding valid leases in the area and interested in drilling for gas were permitted to intervene. The district court entered judgment in favor of the defendants. SJCA argued on appeal that the Project violated the NFMA because it is inconsistent with provisions of the San Juan National Forest Plan protecting old-growth ponderosa pine forests, wildlife habitat and riparian areas. Upon review, the Tenth Circuit vacated a portion of the district court judgment pertaining to the NFMA claims that challenged approval of the Project. The Court dismissed those claims without prejudice. Additionally, the Court affirmed the district court's order regarding the NEPA. The case was remanded back to the district court for further proceedings.
ATK Launch Systems v. EPA
Under the federal Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with establishing national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for various air pollutants. In this case, the Tenth Circuit consolidated several petitions that challenged the EPA's inclusion of portions of Box Elder County, Utah in a "nonattainment" area to the NAAQS for fine particulate matter. The EPA moved to dismiss the petitions or to transfer the petitions to the DC Circuit Court, arguing that the Clean Air Act's judicial review provision designated the DC Circuit as the proper forum. Upon review of the briefs submitted in this matter and the applicable legal authority, the Tenth Circuit transferred the petitions to the DC Circuit Court.
Sierra Club v. Two Elk Generation Partners, LP
Plaintiff-Appellant Sierra Club filed a petition with the Tenth Circuit in an attempt to stop Defendant-Appellee Two Elk Generation Partners, LP (Two Elk) from building a coal-fired power plant in Wyoming. Sierra Club argued that Two Elk was building the plant in violation of the Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. 7604. For over ten years, Two Elk had planned to build the power plant, and filed the appropriate applications with the local environmental authorities to receive permission to start construction. In late 2007, state authorities notified Two Elk that its environmental permit had expired. In the process of getting the permit renewed, Sierra Club tried to intervene to stop the process. While Two Elk and Sierra Club were fighting one another in the state administrative bodies and courts, Sierra Club filed a citizen suit with the federal district court. The federal district court dismissed Sierra Club's case, holding that the state courts already decided the same issues in its suit. On appeal to the Tenth Circuit, Sierra Club argued that it was not a party to the permit-application proceedings, and that it should not be precluded from bringing suit now. Furthermore, the Club argued that the Clean Air Act established the circumstances under which a citizen suit may be brought, and those circumstances were not met at the state court level. Upon careful consideration of the arguments and the applicable legal authority, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the lower court's decision. The Court found that Sierra Club's arguments under the Clean Air Act were indeed precluded by decisions from the state court proceedings. The Court dismissed Sierra Club's appeal.
United States v. Wilgus
Wilgus was arrested for violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, 16 U.S.C. 668, which prohibits possession of eagle feathers, but excepts possession for religious purposes of Indian tribes. Wilgus is a follower of a Native American faith and blood-brother to a Paiute, but not a member of a recognized tribe, nor is he Indian by birth. He received at least one feather for religious purposes. Following a remand, the district court held that application of the Eagle Act to Wilgus would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-1 (RFRA), which prohibits government from substantially burdening religious freedom, except to forward a compelling governmental interest via the least restrictive means. The Tenth Circuit reversed. The government has competing compelling interests in protecting eagles and in preserving Native American religion and culture. The RFRA exception is intended to protect the religion and culture of tribes, not individual practitioners. Tribes are quasi-sovereign political entities; protection of faith practices among the general public might violate the Establishment Clause. The government need not refute every option to satisfy the least restrictive means prong of RFRA; the RFRA exception balances the competing interests. Proposed alternatives, involving creation of a feather repository, opening permits to all sincere adherents to Native American religion, or allowing Native Americans to gift feathers, would either be impractical or have a negative impact on governmental goals.