Justia Environmental Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
Wilmington Trust Co. v. AEP Generating Co.
Nearly 20 years after defendants built, sold, and leased back a Rockport Indiana coal-burning power plant, they committed, in a consent decree resolving lawsuits involving alleged Clean Air Act violations at their other power plants, to either make over a billion dollars of emission control improvements to the plant, or shut it down. The sale and leaseback arrangement was a means of financing construction. Defendants then obtained a modification to the consent decree providing that these improvements need not be made until after their lease expired, pushing their commitments to improve the air quality of the plant’s emissions to the plaintiff, the investors who had financed construction and who would own the plant after the 33-year lease term. The district court held this encumbrance did not violate the parties’ contracts governing the sale and leaseback, and that plaintiff’s breach of contract claims precluded it from maintaining an alternative cause of action for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that a Permitted Lien exception in the lease unambiguously supports the plaintiff’s position and that the defendants’ actions “materially adversely affected’ plaintiff’s interests. View "Wilmington Trust Co. v. AEP Generating Co." on Justia Law
United States v. DTE Energy Co.
DTE's Monroe plaint is the largest coal-fired power plant in Michigan; in 2010, DTE undertook a $65 million overhaul. The day before construction began, DTE submitted notice to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality stating that DTE predicted an increase in post-construction emissions 100 times greater than the minimum necessary to constitute a “major modification” and require a preconstruction permit. DTE characterized the projects as routine maintenance,exempt from New Source Review (NSR) under the Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. 7475, 7503, and stated that it had excluded the entire predicted emissions increase from its projections of post-construction emissions based on “demand growth.” DTE began construction without an NSR permit. The EPA filed suit. In 2013, the Sixth Circuit held that a utility seeking to modify a source of air pollutants must “make a preconstruction projection of whether and to what extent emissions from the source will increase following construction,” which “determines whether the project constitutes a ‘major modification’ and thus requires a permit.” On remand, the district court again entered summary judgment for DTE, concluding that the EPA had to accept DTE’s projections at face value. The Sixth Circuit reversed. DTE was not required to secure the EPA’s approval of the projections, or the project, before construction, but in proceeding without a permit, DTE acted at its own risk. The EPA can challenge DTE’s preconstruction projections and there are genuine disputes of material fact that preclude summary judgment regarding compliance with NSR’s preconstruction requirements. The court noted that construction is complete and that actual post-construction emissions are irrelevant o whether DTE’s preconstruction projections complied with the regulations. View "United States v. DTE Energy Co." on Justia Law
Harper v. Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District
In 1949, the federal government deeded a large parcel to the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD), the entity responsible for controlling flooding in eastern Ohio. The deed provided that the land would revert to the United States if MWCD alienated or attempted to alienate it, or if MWCD stopped using the land for recreation, conservation, or reservoir-development purposes. MWCD sold rights to conduct hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations on the land. Fracking opponents discovered the deed restrictions and, arguing that MWCD’s sale of fracking rights triggered the reversion, filed a “qui tam” suit under the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. 3729. alleging that MWCD was knowingly withholding United States property from the government. The Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim. The court noted recent legislative amendments that replace a fraudulent-intent requirement in two FCA provisions with a requirement that the defendant acted “knowingly,” but concluded that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim even under the more lenient scienter requirement; they did not specify whether or how MWCD knew or should have known that it was in violation of the deed restrictions, such that it knew or should have known that title to the property reverted to the United States. View "Harper v. Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District" on Justia Law
Sherwood v. Tennessee Valley Authority
In 2012, plaintiffs sued the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. 4321, by implementing a right-of-way vegetation-maintenance policy without conducting the required environmental review. The policy required TVA to cut down all trees within its right of ways that were 15-feet tall or had the potential to grow to 15 feet. TVA right-of-way specialists previously had discretion over which trees to remove. Plaintiffs claim that this policy change is a “major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” The district court found that the new “policy” was merely a clarification of longstanding practices and that 2012 Categorical Exclusion (CE) documentation adequately considered the environmental impact. The Sixth Circuit disagreed. On remand, instead of compiling an administrative record, TVA moved to dismiss the case because TVA had reverted to the practices that were utilized before the introduction of the 15-foot rule. TVA submitted two affidavits stating that the responsible TVA official had suspended use of the policy; plaintiffs introduced evidence indicating that TVA had not abandoned the policy. The district court dismissed. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The record evidence suggests that TVA’s challenged policy has a continuing effect, TVA failed to prove that the NEPA claim is moot. View "Sherwood v. Tennessee Valley Authority" on Justia Law
Sierra Club v. United States Forest Serv.
Pursuant to 30 U.S.C. 185(a), in 1953, the U.S. Forest Service issued Enbridge’s predecessor a permit for use of an 8.10-mile strip within the Lower Michigan National Forest for a crude oil pipeline (Line 5). In 1992, USFS reissued the permit through December 2012, noting that USFS “shall renew the authorization” if the line "is being operated and maintained in accordance with" the authorization and other applicable laws. In 2011-2012, after a different Enbridge pipeline spilled oil into the Kalamazoo River, Enbridge obtained permit amendments to install “emergency flow release device[s]” on Line 5. In 2012, Enbridge requested permit renewal for Line 5. USFS conducted field studies on the potential impact on wildlife and vegetation; contacted the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to confirm compliance with pipeline regulations; and accepted public comments. USFS proposed a categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. 4332(2)(C), from the requirement of an Environmental Impact Statement or Environmental Assessment, categorizing the application as replacement of an existing or expired special use authorization, "the only changes are administrative, there are not changes to the authorized facilities or increases in the scope or intensity of authorized activities, and the holder is in full compliance." Sierra Club objected, noting that no EA or EIS had ever been completed for Line 5 because the original permit issued before enactment of NEPA and that intensity of activities along the pipeline had increased. USFS granted a categorical exclusion after considering biological assessment reports and finding “no extraordinary circumstances which may result in significant individual or cumulative effects on the quality of the environment.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment, upholding re-issue of Enbridge’s permit. USFS followed appropriate decision-making processes and reached a non-arbitrary conclusion. View "Sierra Club v. United States Forest Serv." on Justia Law
United States v. Sawyer
Sawyer, with co-defendants, formed A&E to recover salvageable materials (copper, steel, aluminum) from the 300-acre Hamblen County site of the former Liberty Fibers rayon plant, which contained buildings, a water treatment facility, and extensive above-ground piping. The defendants knew that many of the buildings contained regulated asbestos-containing material (RACM), such as pipe-wrap, insulation, roofing, and floor tiles, much of which was marked. Demolition did not comply with National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) governing the handling and disposal of asbestos. Workers were not provided with proper respirators or protective suits; some were asked to remove or handle friable asbestos without adequately wetting it. In a 2008 consent agreement, A&E agreed to correct the violations and comply with NESHAP during future removal and demolition. In 2009, the EPA terminated the agreement and issued an immediate compliance order. Federal agents searched the site, seized documents, and took samples of RACM. EPA, acting under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), cleaned up the site, at a cost of $16,265,418. In 2011, Sawyer and his co-defendants were charged. Sawyer pled guilty to conspiring to violate the Clean Air Act, 18 U.S.C. 371. His PSR calculated a guideline sentencing range of 87-108 months. The statutory maximum under 18 U.S.C. 371 is 60 months, so his effective range was 60 months. The Sixth Circuit affirmed Sawyer’s 60-month sentence and an order holding the co-defendants jointly and severally liable for $10,388,576.71 in restitution to the EPA. View "United States v. Sawyer" on Justia Law
ArZ Mining Ass’n v. Envt’l Protection Agency
Cases challenging the validity of “the Clean Water Rule,” adopted by the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were consolidated in the Sixth Circuit by the Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation. The Rule clarifies the definition of “waters of the United States,” as used in the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1251, “through increased use of bright-line boundaries” to make identifying waters protected under the Act “easier to understand, more predictable and consistent with the law and peer reviewed science, while protecting the streams and wetlands that form the foundation of our nation’s water resources.” Plaintiffs argued that the Rule constituted expansion of regulatory jurisdiction and altered the existing balance of federal-state collaboration and that the new bright-line boundaries are not consistent with Supreme Court precedent, and were not adopted in compliance with the Administrative Procedures Act. The Sixth Circuit stayed the Rule, then denied motions to dismiss. While 33 U.S.C. 1369(b)(1) limits actions by the EPA Administrator that are reviewable directly in the circuit courts, many courts, including the Supreme Court, have favored a “functional” approach over a “formalistic” one in construing these provisions. Congress’s manifest purposes are best fulfilled by exercise of jurisdiction in this case. View "ArZ Mining Ass'n v. Envt'l Protection Agency" on Justia Law
Askins v. Ohio Dep’t of Agric.
Askins filed a citizen suit alleging that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Ohio EPA, and the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) violated the Clean Water Act’s permitting procedures with respect to controlling water pollution caused by certain animal feeding operations, 33 U.S.C. 1251. They alleged that the Ohio EPA failed to inform the EPA that it transferred authority over part of the state’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination (NPDES) permit program to ODA until five years after it had done so; that ODA administered part of the state-NPDES Program without approval from the EPA; that the EPA permitted Ohio EPA to transfer part of the state-NPDES program without its approval; and that the EPA allowed ODA to administer part of the state-NPDES program without its approval. The district court dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that the Clean Water Act does not permit suits against regulators for regulatory functions. View "Askins v. Ohio Dep't of Agric." on Justia Law
Fla. Power Corp. v. FirstEnergy Corp.
After discovering hazardous contaminants at Sanford and Orlando coal gasification plants in the 1990s, the EPA concluded that Florida Power and previous owners were liable for costs of removal and remediation. In 1998 and 2003, Florida Power entered into “Administrative Order by Consent for Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Studies” (AOCs) with the EPA for the sites, under which Power agreed to conduct studies to determine the public safety threat and evaluate options for remedial action. Power agreed to pay the EPA about $534,000 for past response costs at the sites. After the investigation and study at the Sanford site, the EPA entered Records of Decision. In 2009, the court approved a consent decree for actual performance of the Sanford remediation. Regarding the Orlando site, Power submitted a draft Remedial Investigation Report, Risk Assessment, and Remedial Alternative Technical Memorandum that was under EPA review when, in 2011, Power filed this cost recovery and contribution action under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, 42 U.S.C. 9601) against a successor to a former owner-operator of the sites. The court dismissed, finding that the 1998 and 2003 AOCs were “settlement agreements” and triggered CERCLA’s three-year statute of limitations. The Sixth Circuit reversed, finding that the AOCs did not constitute “administrative settlements.” View "Fla. Power Corp. v. FirstEnergy Corp." on Justia Law
Merrick v. Diageo Americas Supply, Inc.
Diageo distills and ages whiskey in Louisville, resulting in tons of ethanol emissions. Ethanol vapor wafts onto nearby property where the ethanol combines with condensation to propagate whiskey fungus. Ethanol emissions are regulated under the Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. 7401. Plaintiffs complained to the air pollution control district, which issued a Notice of Violation, finding that Diageo caused and allowed the emission of an air pollutant which crossed its property line causing an injury and nuisance to nearby neighborhoods and the public. Diageo disputed that its operations violated any district regulation. Plaintiffs filed a class action complaint, seeking damages for negligence, nuisance, and trespass, and an injunction. The district court concluded that state common law tort claims were not preempted by the Clean Air Act;” dismissed plaintiffs’ negligence claim on the ground that plaintiffs had not pled facts sufficient to establish that Diageo owed them a duty of care, or that Diageo had breached that duty; and declined to dismiss the remaining causes of action, concluding that plaintiffs had alleged facts sufficient to establish nuisance and trespass. On interlocutory appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed, based on the Act’s text, the Act’s structure and history, and relevant Supreme Court precedents. View "Merrick v. Diageo Americas Supply, Inc." on Justia Law