Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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MVP asked two Army Corps districts to verify that, pursuant to the Clean Water Act, MVP's proposed discharge of dredged and/or fill material into waters of the United States in furtherance of construction of a natural gas pipeline in those districts could be governed by the Army Corps' 2017 nationwide permit (NWP) referred to as NWP 12. The Huntington District issued a verification, determining that the Pipeline project met the criteria for operation under the NWP 12, excusing the project from the individual permitting process (the "Verification"). The Norfolk District did the same, issuing a reinstatement of its prior verification allowing MVP to use NWP 12 in that district (the "Reinstatement"). Petitioners filed petitions for agency review of the Verification and Reinstatement pursuant to the Natural Gas Act (NGA) and filed the instant motions to stay.The Fourth Circuit concluded that petitioners are likely to succeed on the merits of their petitions for review, and other equitable factors weigh in favor of granting the motions for stay. The court explained that the Verification was likely issued in contravention of applicable law because the Army Corps impermissibly incorporated into NWP 12 a modified permit condition from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP). Furthermore, because the Verification was likely issued in contravention of law, the Reinstatement (which necessarily depends on the validity of the Verification) is likely defective as well. Therefore, the court granted petitioners' motions for a stay of the Huntington District's Verification and the Norfolk District's Reinstatement until such time as the court may consider the petitions for review on their merits. However, the court concluded that petitioners are not likely to succeed on the merits of their challenges to the Army Corps' 2017 issuance of NWP 12 itself because the court likely lacks jurisdiction to entertain such challenges. View "Sierra Club v. U. S. Army Corps of Engineers" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit granted Ergon's petition for review of the EPA's decision denying Ergon's petition to be exempt from the EPA's administration of a renewable fuel standard program. The court previously vacated and remanded the EPA's denial as arbitrary and capricious. On remand, the EPA denied Ergon's petition again. In this appeal, Ergon argues that the EPA repeated the errors the court previously identified in Ergon I by again relying on the DOE's facially deficient scoring metrics to deny the petition.The court reviewed the record and concluded that, although the EPA's post-remand decision largely cured the problems the court previously identified, Ergon has provided sufficient evidence undermining one aspect of the EPA's decision. In this case, part of the EPA's basis for accepting the DOE's reasoning as to Section 1(b) of the DOE's Scoring Matrix has been reliably called into question, and thus the EPA's decision was arbitrary and capricious. Because of the threshold problem with the rationale provided for the Section 1(b) scoring, the court did not reach the secondary issue regarding the apparently contradictory definitions of "refinery" used in Section 1(b) and 2(a). Accordingly, the court vacated and remanded for further proceedings. View "Ergon-West Virginia, Inc. v. Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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Petitioners challenged the Board's award of a permit for construction of a compressor station on behalf of ACP in the historic community of Union Hill. The compression station is one of three stations planned to support the transmission of natural gas through ACP's 600-mile pipeline.The Fourth Circuit held that the Board erred in failing to consider electric turbines as zero-emission alternatives to gas-fired turbines in the compressor station. The court also held that the Board erred in failing to assess the compressor station's potential for disproportionate health impacts on the predominantly African-American community of Union Hill, and in failing to independently evaluate the suitability of that site. Accordingly, the court vacated the permit and remanded for the Board to make findings with regard to conflicting evidence in the record, the particular studies it relied on, and the corresponding local character and degree of injury from particulate matter and toxic substances threatened by construction and operation of the compressor station. View "Friends of Buckingham v. State Air Pollution Control Board" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit granted a petition for review of the FWS's new 2018 Biological Opinion and Incidental Take Statement in connection with the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The court held that FWS arbitrarily reached its no-jeopardy conclusions and failed to correct the deficiencies in the take limits that the court identified in the previous appeal.In this case, the Biological Opinion's conclusion that the pipeline will not jeopardize the rusty patched bumble bee (RPBB) in Bath County, Virginia was arbitrary and capricious because it runs counter to available evidence, relies on data without providing a meaningful basis for that reliance, fails to consider the species’s status as a whole, and fails to consider the pipeline’s impacts on RPBB recovery. Furthermore, the Biological Opinion's finding that the clubshell's continued survival will not be jeopardized by the pipeline construction was not in accordance with the law and failed to consider important aspects of the issue before the agency. The court also held that the Biological Opinion failed to create enforceable take limits for the Indiana bat and the Madison Cave isopod. Accordingly, the court vacated the 2018 Biological Opinion and Incidental Take Statement. View "Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Department of the Interior" on Justia Law

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The Sanitary Board challenged the EPA's decision disapproving a revised standard for the receiving waters of the Board's wastewater treatment facility along the Kanawha River. The district court dismissed the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) claims as moot following the issuance of a new permit to the Board.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment in favor of the EPA on the merits, finding that the agency did not violate the APA. The court held that, on the record, it was evident that the EPA reached a justified conclusion and its decision was not arbitrary, capricious, nor contrary to law. In this case, the EPA employed the scientific expertise and grounded judgment that the Clean Water Act contemplates. View "Sanitary Board of the City of Charleston v. Wheeler" on Justia Law

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SOS challenged the agencies' decision to replace a segment of North Carolina Highway 12 (NC-12) with a bridge across the Pamlico Sound. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of the agencies' motion for summary judgment, holding that they did not violate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or the Department of Transportation Act (DTA) when they approved the bridge. In this case, the agencies were not required to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement to consider the alignment of the Jug-Handle Bridge or to consider beach nourishment alternatives; the agencies adequately considered the effects of construction traffic as a result of the Jug-Handle Bridge in the 2016 record of decision; and the agencies' choice of the Jug-Handle Bridge was not impermissibly predetermined. The court also affirmed the district court's denial of SOS's motion to amend its complaint. View "Save Our Sound OBX, Inc. v. North Carolina Department of Transportation" on Justia Law

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Petitioners challenged the Board's decision certifying that it had reasonable assurances that activities related to the construction of a natural gas pipeline would not degrade the state's water resources. The Fourth Circuit denied the petition for review, holding that the Board's certification under section 401 of the Clean Water Act was not arbitrary and capricious.The court held that the decision to reopen the comment period and not to conduct a combined effect analysis did not render the state agencies' issuance of a section 401 certification arbitrary and capricious. The court also held that the state agencies' reasonable assurance determination was not arbitrary and capricious because they relied on existing Virginia water quality standards and regulations to effectively address concerns regarding water quality deterioration, and the state agencies' treatment of karst terrain was not arbitrary or capricious because of the conditions imposed on the certification. View "Appalachian Voices v. State Water Control Board" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit granted a petition for review of the Forest Service's Special Use Permit and Record of Decision authorizing Atlantic, the project developer, to construct the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through parts of the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests and granting a right of way across the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.The court held that the Forest Service's decisions in its 2012 Planning Rule and the 2016 Amendment to the 2012 Planning Rule violated the National Forest Management Act and the court remanded for further proceedings. The court also held that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, and that the Forest Service lacked statutory authority pursuant to the Mineral Leasing Act to grant a pipeline right of way across the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. The court concluded that the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources, and noted that the Forest Service's serious environmental concerns were suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company's deadlines. View "Cowpasture River Preservation Association v. Forest Service" on Justia Law

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The 42-inch diameter natural gas Mountain Valley Pipeline proposes to run 304 miles through Virginia and West Virginia, In the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Huntington District, the Pipeline and related roads will cross 591 federal water bodies, including four major rivers three of which are navigable-in-fact rivers regulated by the Rivers and Harbors Act, 33 U.S.C. 403. Because construction will involve the discharge of fill material into federal waters, the Clean Water Act requires clearance from the Corps, 33 U.S.C. 1344(a). The Act provides for individual permits or “interested parties can try to fit their proposed activity within the scope of an existing general permit,” in this case Clean Water Act Nationwide Permit (NWP) 12, “which acts as a standing authorization for developers to undertake an entire category of activities deemed to create only minimal environmental impact.” The Corps verified that the Pipeline can proceed under NWP 12 rather than an individual permit. The Fourth Circuit vacated, holding that the Corps lacked statutory authority to substitute its own special condition for a different special condition imposed by West Virginia as part of its certification of NWP 12. Without completion of the notice-and-comment procedures required by the Act, a state cannot waive a special condition previously imposed as part of its certification of a nationwide permit. West Virginia did not follow federally-mandated notice-and-comment procedures in waiving another special condition imposed as part of its certification of NWP 12. View "Sierra Club v. United States Army Corps of Engineers" on Justia Law

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Sierra Club filed suit against Dominion under the citizen-suit provision of the Clean Water Act, alleging that Dominion was violating 33 U.S.C. 1311(a), which prohibits the unauthorized "discharge of any pollutant" into navigable waters. The Fourth Circuit held that the landfill and settling ponds on the Chesapeake site of a coal-fired power plant did not constitute "point sources" as that term was defined in the Clean Water Act, and thus reversed the district court's ruling that Dominion was liable under section 1311(a). The court held, however, that Dominion's discharge permit did not regulate the groundwater contamination at issue and affirmed as to those claims. View "Sierra Club v. Virginia Electric & Power Co." on Justia Law