Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
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The case involves a challenge by the Sierra Club to the pre-construction permits issued by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) to Commonwealth LNG, LLC for its planned liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility. The Sierra Club argued that the facility’s emissions would exceed National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) and that LDEQ failed to require Commonwealth to use the best available control technology (BACT) to limit those emissions.Before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, LDEQ argued that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case, asserting that the claim arose under state law, not federal law. However, the court found that it had jurisdiction to review the petition because when LDEQ issued the permit, it was acting pursuant to federal law, not merely state law.On the merits, the court found that LDEQ did not act arbitrarily in its use of significant impact levels (SILs) to calculate which pollutants will have an insignificant effect on the NAAQS. The court also found that LDEQ did not act arbitrarily in its use of AP-42 emission factors to determine potential emissions from an LNG facility that has not yet been built. Furthermore, the court held that LDEQ did not violate its public trustee duty under Louisiana law, which requires LDEQ to evaluate and avoid adverse environmental impacts to the maximum extent possible.The court denied Sierra Club’s petition for review and affirmed LDEQ’s permitting decision. View "Sierra Club v. Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around a dispute between Good River Farms and Martin Marietta Materials and TXI Operations, who own land directly across from each other along the Colorado River. In 2015, a "120-year flood" event occurred near Austin, Texas, causing severe damage to Good River's pecan farm. Good River claimed that Martin Marietta's strip mining activities resulted in a large pit filled with groundwater that breached and released a deluge of impounded surface water onto their property. Following a jury trial, Good River was awarded $659,882.00 in damages, prevailing on claims for violations of Texas Water Code § 11.086 and for negligence. Martin Marietta appealed the decision.The case was initially heard in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. The jury rejected Good River's nuisance claims but found in favor of Good River on the issues of water diversion and negligence. The trial court entered final judgment on that verdict, awarding Good River $659,882.00 in damages. Martin Marietta filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), which the trial court denied.The case was then reviewed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The court affirmed the lower court's decision, ruling that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's conclusions that Martin Marietta violated Texas Water Code § 11.086 and committed common law negligence. The court noted that the jury verdict demands deference and that the unique factual scenario presented in this case supported the jury's conclusions. View "Good River Farms v. TXI Operations" on Justia Law

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In this case, a government agency had approved a license to construct and operate a massive deepwater oil facility off the coast of Texas. Several environmental organizations alleged that the approval was unreasonable, arguing that the agency failed to adequately support its decision with a thorough environmental impact analysis. The groups claimed this was in violation of the Deepwater Port Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. They contended that the agency's approval was arbitrary or capricious. The environmental organizations asserted that operating the facility would produce emissions equivalent to more than 80 new coal-fired power plants and could increase the likelihood of mass oil spills along miles of the Texas coastline. They also voiced concerns about potential threats to the Gulf's marine environment.After their concerns were initially dismissed by the agency overseeing the project, the environmental organizations appealed the licensing decision. They claimed the agency had not conducted the appropriate level of review in its environmental impact statement and had not followed relevant statutory provisions during the approval process.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the agency had adequately considered the environmental consequences of the facility before approving its deepwater port license. The court found that the agency's decision was not arbitrary or capricious, and as such, it denied the petition for review brought by the environmental organizations. The court ruled that the agency had taken a "hard look" at the environmental consequences of the project, provided sufficient detail for the public to understand and consider the relevant environmental influences, and evaluated alternatives in a way that permitted a reasoned choice among different courses of action. View "Citizens for Clean Air & Clean Water in Brazoria County v. United States Department of Transportation" on Justia Law

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The case involves a petition by Inhance Technologies, L.L.C. against orders issued by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Inhance, a company that has been fluorinating plastic containers since 1983, was charged by the EPA for violating a Significant New Use Rule regarding long-chain perfluoroalkyls (PFAS) due to the presence of PFAS in an insecticide stored in a container fluorinated by Inhance. PFAS are long-lasting chemicals found in various products and have been linked to several health issues. The EPA issued two orders under Section 5 of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), prohibiting Inhance from manufacturing or processing PFAS during its fluorination process. Inhance claimed that if the orders were enforced, they would shutdown their fluorination process and bankrupt the company.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of Inhance, stating that the EPA exceeded its statutory authority by issuing the orders. The court held that Inhance's decades-old fluorination process could not be deemed a "significant new use" under Section 5 of TSCA. The court vacated the EPA's orders and noted that the EPA could regulate Inhance's fluorination process under Section 6 of TSCA, which requires a cost-benefit analysis for ongoing uses. The court's ruling was based on the interpretation of the term "new" in TSCA, the statutory framework, and the requirement for agencies to provide fair notice of their rules. View "Inhance Technologies v. EPA" on Justia Law

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Gold Coast Commodities, Inc., a company that converts used cooking oil and vegetable by-products into animal feed ingredients, was insured under a policy by Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America. The policy included a pollution exclusion clause. During the policy period, the City of Brandon and the City of Jackson filed suits against Gold Coast, alleging that the company dumped corrosive, high-temperature wastewater into their respective sewer systems, causing damage. Travelers denied coverage for these claims, citing the policy's pollution exclusion clause. Gold Coast appealed this decision, arguing that Travelers had a duty to defend them in these lawsuits and reimburse them for their defense costs.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the lower court's decision, finding that the claims against Gold Coast were clearly and unambiguously excluded from coverage based on the policy's pollution exclusion. The court noted that the pollution exclusion clause was not ambiguous in this context, as there was no reasonable interpretation of the wastewater's form or qualities that would conclude that it was not an irritant or contaminant, as defined in the policy.The court concluded that because the claims fell outside the policy's coverage, Travelers had no duty to defend or indemnify Gold Coast and its principals in relation to the lawsuits brought against them by the City of Brandon and the City of Jackson. Therefore, the court affirmed the decision of the district court, which had denied Gold Coast's motions for partial judgment on the pleadings and had granted Travelers' motion for partial summary judgment. View "Gold Coast Commodities, Inc. v. Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America" on Justia Law

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In a dispute over the classification of two Texas counties under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the EPA's decision to designate the counties as "nonattainment" for sulfur dioxide emissions. The dispute arose when the EPA initially designated Rusk and Panola counties as nonattainment based on data submitted by the Sierra Club. The EPA later proposed to change the designation to "unclassifiable" after it found the initial data to be potentially erroneous. However, in June 2021, the EPA withdrew the proposal and upheld the initial nonattainment designation. The State of Texas and Luminant Generation Company, companies adversely affected by the nonattainment designation, petitioned for a review of the EPA's decision. The court held that the EPA's decision was not arbitrary, capricious, or unlawful, but rather a valid exercise of the agency's discretion based on its technical expertise and review of complex scientific data. The court also found that the EPA did not misconceive its legal authority or fail to treat like cases alike in its decision-making process. View "State of Texas v. Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided a case regarding the regulation of two tracts of land in Livingston Parish, Louisiana. The landowners, Garry L. Lewis and G. Lewis-Louisiana, L.L.C. (collectively referred to as "Lewis"), had been contending with the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for ten years over the agency's assertion of jurisdiction over alleged "wetlands" on their property under the Clean Water Act.The case had a complex history, involving two Supreme Court cases, three Approved Jurisdictional Determinations (AJDs), two federal court cases resulting in two remand orders, and two appeals to the Fifth Circuit. Ultimately, the Fifth Circuit held that the Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett v. EPA controlled the facts of this case and dictated that Lewis' property lacked "wetlands" that had "a continuous surface connection to bodies that are 'waters of the United States' in their own right," such that there was no clear demarcation between "waters" and wetlands. As a result, the property was not subject to federal jurisdiction.The court noted that Lewis' property, used primarily as a pine timber plantation, was composed of two approximately twenty-acre tracts of "grass-covered, majority dry fields, with gravel logging and timber roads on two sides of each tract." Despite this, the USACE had concluded after numerous site visits that certain percentages of these tracts contained jurisdictional wetlands, thereby restricting Lewis' development plans without a federal permit.The court rejected the government's arguments that the case was moot following the withdrawal of the 2020 AJD and that further remand was necessary for the USACE to reevaluate the jurisdictional issue. The court held that the voluntary cessation of the allegedly wrongful behavior did not moot the case as there was no reasonable expectation of non-recurrence, and remand was inappropriate as the facts and governing law made it clear that Lewis' property was not subject to federal Clean Water Act regulation.The court ultimately vacated the judgment of the district court and remanded the case with instructions to enter judgment in favor of Lewis, confirming that the tracts in question were not "waters of the United States" under the Sackett ruling. View "Lewis v. USA" on Justia Law

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In this consolidated appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled on a decade-long dispute between landowners Garry L. Lewis and G. Lewis-Louisiana, L.L.C. (together referred to as "Lewis") and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) over the federal jurisdiction of "wetlands" on their Louisiana property under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The case involved numerous Supreme Court cases, jurisdictional determinations, federal court cases, and appeals.Lewis's property was primarily used as a pine timber plantation. In 2013, Lewis requested a jurisdictional determination from the USACE to develop the property, which went unanswered until a formal request two years later. The USACE concluded in 2016 that portions of the property contained wetlands subject to CWA jurisdiction. Lewis appealed, leading to a reconsideration and a substantially unchanged jurisdictional determination in 2017. Lewis then filed suit in federal court, claiming that the Corps' action was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The district court found the administrative record insufficient to support the conclusion that wetlands on the property met the "adjacency" test or had a "significant nexus" to traditional navigable waters and remanded the case back to USACE for further review.On remand, USACE revised the data and applied a recently issued regulation. However, the revised determination nearly doubled the alleged wetlands on one of Lewis's property tracts. After another round of litigation and appeals, the case reached the Fifth Circuit, where Lewis argued that under no interpretation of the administrative facts could his property be regulated as "wetlands" subject to the CWA.The Fifth Circuit agreed with Lewis, drawing upon the Supreme Court's recent decision in Sackett v. EPA which held that the CWA only extends to wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are "waters of the United States" in their own right. The Fifth Circuit found that there was no such connection between any plausible wetlands on Lewis's property and a "relatively permanent body of water connected to traditional interstate navigable waters," and thus, there was no factual basis for federal Clean Water Act regulation of these tracts.The court also rejected the government's arguments that the appeal was moot due to the withdrawal of the 2020 jurisdictional determination, and that the case should be remanded to USACE for reevaluation. The court held that the agency's unilateral withdrawal of a final agency action did not render the case moot and that remand was not appropriate because there was no uncertainty about the outcome of the agency's proceedings on remand.Consequently, the Fifth Circuit vacated the judgment of the district court and remanded with instructions to enter judgment in favor of Lewis that the tracts in question are not "waters of the United States" under the Clean Water Act as interpreted by Sackett v. EPA. View "Lewis v. USA" on Justia Law

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Six small refineries1 (“petitioners”) challenge the EPA’s decision to deny their requested exemptions from their obligations under the Renewable Fuel Standard (“RFS”) program of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”). The EPA denied petitioners’ years-old petitions using a novel CAA interpretation and economic theory that the agency published in December 2021.The Fifth Circuit granted the petitions for review, vacated the challenged adjudications, denied a change of venue, and remanded. The court concluded that the denial was (1) impermissibly retroactive; (2) contrary to law; and (3) counter to the record evidence. The court noted that the agency supports its assertion by dreaming up a hypothetical contract—filled with unsubstantiated speculation about terms such RIN clip sale prices and broker service fees—that TSAR might be able to negotiate. But EPA never explains why it believes small refineries can get contract terms like those. Unsubstantiated agency speculation does not overcome petitioners’ proven inability to purchase market-rate RINs ratably. The court explained that as a general matter, courts cannot compel agencies to act. Petitioners do not allege that the CAA expressly requires EPA to issue such guidance. An agency’s control over its timetables is entitled to considerable deference.That EPA has yet to make good on its promise to provide further guidance does not render the agency’s current (lack of) guidance arbitrary and capricious. View "Placid Refining Company, L.L.C. v. EPA" on Justia Law

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The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (“TCEQ”) declined to impose certain emissions limits on a new natural gas facility that it had recently imposed on another such facility. In doing so, it contravened its policy of adhering to previously imposed emissions limits, but it did not adequately explain why.   The Fifth Circuit vacated the Commission’s order granting the emissions permit at issue and remanded. The court explained that in this case, the Commission rejected the ALJs’ proposed CO and NOX emissions limits because they were “not demonstrated to be achievable or proven to be operational, obtainable, and capable.” Even though those limits had been approved for Rio Grande LNG, there was no “operational data to prove” they were achievable. Here, the record is clear—the limits imposed on Port Arthur LNG are not “at least equivalent” to those imposed on Rio Grande LNG. Therefore, the Commission’s own policy directed it to consider Rio Grande LNG’s limits, even if Rio Grande LNG was not currently in operation. It therefore acted arbitrarily and capriciously under Texas law. View "Port Arthur Cmty Actn Netwk v. TCEQ" on Justia Law