Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

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Peat mining companies sought a Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1311(a), 1362, permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, to discharge material onto wetlands on property that they own and hope to mine. The Corps issued a jurisdictional designation (JD) stating that the property contained “waters of the United States” because its wetlands had a “significant nexus” to the Red River of the North, located 120 miles away. The district court dismissed their appeal for want of jurisdiction, holding that the JD was not a “final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy,” 5 U.S.C. 704. The Eighth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed. The Corps’ approved JD is a final agency action judicially reviewable under the Administrative Procedures Act. An approved JD clearly “mark[s] the consummation” of the Corps’ decision-making on whether particular property contains “waters of the United States.” It is issued after extensive fact-finding regarding the property’s physical and hydrological characteristics and typically remains valid for five years. The Corps describes approved JDs as “final agency action.” The definitive nature of approved JDs gives rise to “direct and appreciable legal consequences.” A “negative” creates a five-year safe harbor from governmental civil enforcement proceedings and limits the potential liability for violating the Act. An “affirmative” JD, like issued here, deprives property owners of the five-year safe harbor. Parties need not await enforcement proceedings before challenging final agency action where such proceedings carry the risk of “serious criminal and civil penalties.” The permitting process is costly and lengthy, and irrelevant to the finality of the approved JD and its suitability for judicial review. View "Army Corps of Eng'rs v. Hawkes Co." on Justia Law

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The Clean Air Act requires permits for stationary sources, such as factories and powerplants. The Act’s “Prevention of Significant Deterioration” (PSD) provisions make it unlawful to construct or modify a “major emitting facility” in “any area to which [PSD program] applies” without a permit, 42 U.S.C. 7475(a)(1), 7479(2)(C). A “major emitting facility” is a stationary source with the potential to emit 250 tons per year of “any air pollutant” (or 100 tons per year for certain sources). Facilities seeking a PSD permit must comply with emissions limitations that reflect the “best available control technology” (BACT) for “each pollutant subject to regulation under” the Act and it is unlawful to operate any “major source,” wherever located, without a permit. A “major source” is a stationary source with the potential to emit 100 tons per year of “any air pollutant,” under Title V of the Act. In response to the Supreme Court decision, Massachusetts v. EPA, the EPA promulgated greenhouse-gas (GHG) emission standards for new vehicles, and made stationary sources subject to the PSD program and Title V, based on potential GHG emissions. Recognizing that requiring permits for all sources with GHG emissions above statutory thresholds would render the programs unmanageable, EPA purported to “tailor” the programs to accommodate GHGs by providing that sources would not become newly subject to PSD or Title V permitting on the basis of their potential to emit GHGs in amounts less than 100,000 tons per year. The D.C. Circuit dismissed some challenges to the tailoring rule for lack of jurisdiction and denied the rest. The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part, finding that the Act does not permit an interpretation requiring a source to obtain a PSD or Title V permit on the sole basis of potential GHG emissions. The Massachusetts decision held that the Act-wide definition of “air pollutant” includes GHGs, but with respect to PSD and Title V permitting provisions, EPA has employed a narrower, context-appropriate meaning. Massachusetts did not invalidate the long-standing constructions. “The Act-wide definition is not a command to regulate, but a description of the universe of substances EPA may consider regulating.” The presumption of consistent usage yields to context and distinct statutory objects call for different implementation strategies. EPA has repeatedly acknowledged that applying PSD and Title V permitting requirements to GHGs would be inconsistent with the Act’s structure and design, which concern “a relative handful of large sources capable of shouldering heavy substantive and procedural burdens.” EPA lacked authority to “tailor” the Act’s unambiguous numerical thresholds to accommodate its GHG-inclusive interpretation. EPA reasonably interpreted the Act to require sources that would need permits based on emission of conventional pollutants to comply with BACT for GHGs. BACT, which has traditionally been about end-of-stack controls, may be fundamentally unsuited to GHG regulation, but applying BACT to GHGs is not "disastrously unworkable," and need not result in a dramatic expansion of agency authority. View "Util. Air Regulatory Grp. v. Envtl. Prot. Agency" on Justia Law

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The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, 42 U.S.C. 960, contains a provision (section 9658) that preempts statutes of limitations applicable to state-law actions for personal injury or property damage arising from the release of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant into the environment. Section 9658 adopts the discovery rule, so that statutes of limitations begin to run when a plaintiff discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, that the harm was caused by the contaminant because person who is exposed to a toxic contaminant may not develop or show signs of resulting injury for many years. CTS sold property on which it had stored chemicals as part its operations as an electronics plant; 24 years later, owners of parts of that property and adjacent landowners, sued, alleging damages from the stored contaminants. CTS moved to dismiss, citing a state statute of repose that prevented subjecting a defendant to a tort suit brought more than 10 years after the defendant’s last culpable act. Because CTS’s last act occurred when it sold the property, the district court granted the motion. The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the statute’s remedial purpose favored preemption. The Supreme Court reversed in part, concluding that section 9658 does not pre-empt state statutes of repose. Statutes of limitations promote justice by encouraging plaintiffs to pursue claims diligently and begin to run when a claim accrues. Statutes of repose effect a legislative judgment that a defendant should be free from liability after a legislatively determined amount of time and are measured from the date of the defendant’s last culpable actor omission. Under the language of the statute, pre-emption is characterized as an exception to the regular rule that the “the statute of limitations established under State law” applies; it is proper to conclude that Congress did not intend to preempt statutes of repose. View "CTS Corp. v. Waldburger" on Justia Law

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The Clean Air Act (CAA) requires national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for pollutants at levels that will protect public health, 42 U.S.C. 7408. Once EPA establishes NAAQS, it designates “nonattainment” areas; each state must submit a State Implementation Plan, (SIP), within three years of any new or revised NAAQS. From the date EPA determines that a SIP is inadequate, EPA has two years to promulgate a Federal Implementation Plan (FIP). SIPs must comply with a Good Neighbor Provision, and “contain adequate provisions ... prohibiting .. . any source or other type of emissions activity within the State from emitting any air pollutant in amounts which will ... contribute significantly to nonattainment in, or interfere with maintenance by, any other State with respect to” NAAQS. In response to flaws in its 2005 Clean Air Interstate Rule, identified by the D. C. Circuit, EPA promulgated the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (Transport Rule), curbing nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions in 27 upwind states to achieve downwind attainment of three NAAQS and providing that an upwind state contributed significantly to downwind nonattainment if its exported pollution produced at least one percent of a NAAQS in a downwind state and could be eliminated cost-effectively. EPA created an annual emissions “budget” for each upwind state and contemporaneously promulgated FIPs allocating each state’s budget among its pollution sources. The D.C. Circuit vacated the rule as exceeding EPA’s authority. The Supreme Court reversed. The CAA does not require that states be given another opportunity to file a SIP after EPA has quantified interstate pollution obligations. Disapproval of a SIP, without more, triggers EPA’s obligation to issue a FIP within precise deadlines. That EPA had previously accorded upwind states a chance to allocate emission budgets among their sources does not show that it acted arbitrarily by refraining to do so in this instance. The Good Neighbor Provision does not dictate a method of apportionment, so EPA had authority to select from among reasonable options; nothing precludes the final calculation from relying on costs. By imposing uniform cost thresholds on regulated states, the rule is efficient and is stricter on states that have done less pollution control in the past and does not amount to “over-control.” View "Envtl. Prot. Agency v. EME Homer City Generation, L. P." on Justia Law

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In 1972 Koontz bought 14.9 undeveloped acres. Florida subsequently enacted the 1972 Water Resources Act, requiring a permit with conditions to ensure that construction will not be harm water resources and the 1984 Henderson Wetlands Protection Act, making it illegal to “dredge or fill in, on, or over surface waters” without a wetlands permit. The District with jurisdiction over the Koontz land requires that applicants wishing to build on wetlands offset environmental damage by creating, enhancing, or preserving wetlands elsewhere. Koontz decided to develop 3.7-acres. In 1994 he proposed to raise a section of his land to make it suitable for building and installing a stormwater pond. To mitigate environmental effects, Koontz offered to foreclose development of 11 acres by deeding to the District a conservation easement. The District rejected Koontz’s proposal and indicated that it would approve construction only if he reduced the size of his development and deeded a conservation easement on the larger remaining property or hired contractors to improve District wetlands miles away. Koontz sued under a state law that provides damages for agency action that constitutes a taking without just compensation. The trial court found the District’s actions unlawful under the requirements of Nollan v. California Coastal Commission and Dolan v. City of Tigard, that the government may not condition permit approval on the owner’s relinquishment of a portion of his property unless there is a nexus and rough proportionality between the demand and the effects of the proposed use. The court of appeal affirmed, but the Florida Supreme Court reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that a governmental demand for property from a land-use permit applicant must satisfy the Nollan/Dolan requirements even when it denies the permit. The Nollan/Dolan standard reflects the danger of governmental coercion in the land-use permitting context while accommodating the legitimate need to offset public costs of development through land use exactions. It makes no difference that the Koontz property was not actually taken. It does not matter that the District might have been able to deny Koontz’s application outright without giving him the option of securing a permit by agreeing to spend money improving public lands. Even a demand for money from a land-use permit applicant must satisfy the Nollan/Dolan requirements; there is a direct link between the demand and a specific parcel of real property. The Court rejected arguments that applying Nollan/Dolan scrutiny to money exactions will leave no principled way of distinguishing impermissible land-use exactions from property taxes, stating that its holding “will not work a revolution in land use law or unduly limit the discretion of local authorities to implement sensible land use regulations.” View "Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Mgmt. Dist." on Justia Law

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The Clean Water Act requires that National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits be secured before pollutants are discharged from any point source into navigable waters of the United States, 33 U. S. C. 1311(a), 1362(12). An Environmental Protection Agency implementing regulation, the Silvicultural Rule, specifies which types of logging-related discharges are point sources, requiring NPDES permits unless some other provision exempts them. One exemption covers “discharges composed entirely of stormwater,” 33 U. S. C. 1342(p)(1), unless the discharge is “associated with industrial activity.” Under the EPA’s Industrial Stormwater Rule, the term “associated with industrial activity” covers only discharges “from any conveyance that is used for collecting and conveying storm water and that is directly related to manufacturing, processing or raw materials storage areas at an industrial plant.” A final version of a recent amendment to the Industrial Stormwater Rule clarifies that the NPDES permit requirement applies only to logging operations involving rock crushing, gravel washing, log sorting, and log storage facilities, which are all listed in the Silvicultural Rule. Georgia-Pacific has a contract to harvest timber from an Oregon forest. When it rains, water runs off its logging roads into ditches that discharge the water into rivers and streams, often with sediment, which may be harmful to fish and other aquatic organisms. NEDC sued Georgia-Pacific and state and local governments. The district court dismissed, concluding that NPDES permits were not required because the ditches were not point sources of pollution under the CWA and the Silvicultural Rule. The Ninth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court reversed, first holding that section1369(b), did not bar the district court from hearing a citizen suit against an alleged violator and seeking to enforce an obligation imposed by the CWA. The recent amendment to the Industrial Stormwater Rule did not make the case moot. Past discharges might be the basis for penalties even if, in the future, those discharges will not require a permit. The pre-amendment Rule, as construed by the EPA, exempted discharges of channeled stormwater runoff from logging roads from the NPDES requirement. The regulation is a reasonable interpretation of the statutory term “associated with industrial activity;” it was reasonable for the EPA to conclude that the conveyances at issue are “directly related” only to harvesting raw materials, rather than to “manufacturing, processing, or raw materials storage areas at an industrial plant.” The EPA has been consistent in its view that the types of discharges at issue do not require NPDES permits. View "Decker v. Nw Envtl Def. Ctr." on Justia Law

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Los Angeles County Flood Control District operates a “municipal separate storm sewer system” (MS4) drainage system that collects, transports, and discharges storm water. Because storm water is often heavily polluted, the Clean Water Act (CWA) and regulations require certain MS4 operators to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit before discharging storm water into navigable waters. The District has such a permit for its MS4. Environmental groups filed a citizen suit under the CWA, 33 U. S. C.1365, alleging that water-quality measurements from monitoring stations within the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers demonstrated that the District was violating its permit. The district court granted summary judgment, concluding that the record was insufficient to warrant a finding that the MS4 had discharged storm water containing the standards-exceeding pollutants detected at the downstream monitoring stations. The Ninth Circuit reversed in part, holding that the District was liable for discharge of pollutants that occurred when the polluted water detected at the monitoring stations flowed out of the concrete-lined portions of the rivers, where the monitoring stations are located, into lower, unlined portions of the same rivers. The Supreme Court reversed. The flow of water from an improved portion of a navigable waterway into an unimproved portion of the same waterway does not qualify as a “discharge of a pollutant” under the CWA. View "Los Angeles Cnty. Flood Control Dist. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc." on Justia Law

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Arkansas Game and Fish Commission owns and manages the Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, 23,000 acres with multiple hardwood species and used for recreation and hunting. In 1948, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed Clearwater Dam upstream from the Area and adopted the Water Control Manual, setting seasonally varying rates for release of water from the Dam. From 1993-2000, the Corps, at the request of farmers, authorized deviations from the Manual that extended flooding into peak timber growing season. The Commission objected that deviations adversely impacted the Area, and opposed a proposal to make deviations part of the permanent water-release plan. After testing, the Corps abandoned the proposed Manual revision and ceased temporary deviations. The Commission sued, alleging that the deviations caused sustained flooding during growing season and that the cumulative impact of the flooding caused destruction of Area timber and substantial change in the terrain, necessitating costly reclamation. The Claims Court judgment ($5,778,757) in favor of the Commission was reversed by the Federal Circuit, which held that government-induced flooding can support a taking claim only if “permanent or inevitably recurring.” The Supreme Court reversed and remanded. Government-induced flooding of limited duration may be compensable. There is no blanket temporary-flooding exception to Takings Clause jurisprudence and no reason to treat flooding differently than other government intrusions. While the public interests are important, they are not categorically different from interests at stake in other takings cases. When regulation or temporary physical invasion by government interferes with private property, time is a factor in determining the existence of a compensable taking, as are the degree to which the invasion is intended or the foreseeable result of authorized government action, the character of the land, the owner’s “reasonable investment-backed expectations,” and the severity of the interference. View "AR Game & Fish Comm'n v. United States" on Justia Law

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The company was convicted of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for knowingly storing liquid mercury without a permit "on or about September 19, 2002 to October 19, 2004." Violations are punishable by a fine of not more than $50,000 per day, 42 U.S.C. 6928(d). The probation office calculated a maximum fine of $38.1 million, based on 762 days. The company argued that any fine greater than $50,000 would be unconstitutional under Apprendi v. New Jersey, which held that the Sixth Amendment requires that any fact (other than prior conviction) that increases maximum punishment be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The district court held that Apprendi applies to criminal fines, but concluded that the jury found a 762-day violation and imposed a fine of $6 million and a community service obligation of $12 million. The First Circuit affirmed on the ground that Apprendi does not apply to criminal fines. The Supreme Court reversed. Apprendi applies to criminal fines. The "core concern, to reserve to the jury determination of facts that warrant punishment for a specific statutory offense, applies whether the sentence is a criminal fine or imprisonment or death. Dissenters argued that facts relevant to a fine’s amount typically quantify the harm and do not define a separate set of acts for punishment. The majority rejected the assumption that, in determining maximum punishment, there is a constitutionally significant difference between a fact that is an "element" and one that is a "sentencing factor." View "Southern Union Co. v. United States" on Justia Law

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Petitioners brought a civil action under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. 500 et seq., to challenge the issuance by the EPA of an administrative compliance order under section 309 of the Clean Water Act (Act), 33 U.S.C. 1319. The order asserted that petitioners' property was subject to the Act, and that they have violated its provisions by placing fill material on the property; and on this basis it directed them immediately to restore the property pursuant to an EPA work plan. The Court concluded that the compliance order was final agency action for which there was no adequate remedy other than APA review, and that the Act did not preclude that review. Therefore, the Court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Sackett v. EPA" on Justia Law