Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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“Arabella Farm”, is bounded by three bodies of water—Clearwater Branch, Peach Orchard Branch, and an unnamed tributary of the Eastatoe River. Arabella Farm began clearing 20 acres of land to create its venue. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (Department) conducted an inspection to evaluate the farm’s compliance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program. Defendants’ claimed its work fell within an agricultural exemption to the Clean Water Act’s requirements.   Naturaland Trust and Trout Unlimited (collectively “the conservationists”)—non-profit organizations dedicated to conserving land, water, and natural resources—sent a notice of intent to sue letter to Arabella Farm. As the statute requires, the letter detailed the alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. The district court dismissed the conservationists’ complaint.   The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling. The court held that the district court erred in concluding that the diligent prosecution bar precluded the conservationists’ federal claims. The court explained that the Department’s notice of alleged violation was enough to commence an action that was comparable to one brought under federal law. That notice invited Arabella Farm to an informal, voluntary, private conference with the Department to discuss allegedly unauthorized discharges. Thus, because the Department had not yet commenced an action when the conservationists filed their citizen suit, the diligent prosecution bar does not preclude them from pursuing a civil penalty action. Further, the court held that the district court erred in concluding that Plaintiff was not permitted to sue under the Clean Water Act. View "Naturaland Trust v. Dakota Finance LLC" on Justia Law

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Environmental nonprofit organizations challenged the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2020 Biological Opinion and Incidental Take Statement (BiOp) for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. 1536(a)(2), requires that whenever an agency action “may affect listed species,” the agency must formally consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service, which must formulate a “biological opinion” on whether that action, in light of the relevant environmental context, “is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of [those] species.” The plaintiffs alleged that the agency failed to adequately consider the project’s environmental context while analyzing impacts to two species of endangered fish, the Roanoke logperch and the candy darter.The Fourth Circuit vacated the approval. Serious errors at steps two and three of the jeopardy analysis render the 2020 BiOp arbitrary and capricious. The court recognized that its decision will further delay the completion of an already mostly finished Pipeline, but reiterated the Act’s directive to: “halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.” In effect, the Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to pass off its summary of range-wide conditions and threats as an action-area analysis. Caguely referring to the “destruction and modification of habitat” within the action area, without explaining the specific causes or extent of this local degradation, leaves unclear at what the baseline condition for the logperch might actually be. View "Appalachian Voices v. United States Department of the Interior" on Justia Law

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In two consolidated cases, petitioners seek review of the Forest Service and BLM's decisions to allow the Mountain Valley Pipeline to cross three and a half miles of the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia and West Virginia. The Fourth Circuit previously vacated the agencies' records of decision (RODs) because the Forest Service and the BLM failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Forest Management Act (the NFMA), and the Mineral Leasing Act (the MLA). Petitioners argue that the agencies' renewed RODs after remand also violate NEPA, the NFMA, and the MLA.The Fourth Circuit concluded that the Forest Service and the BLM inadequately considered the actual sedimentation and erosion impacts of the Pipeline; prematurely authorized the use of the conventional bore method to construct stream crossings; and failed to comply with the Forest Service's 2012 Planning Rule. Accordingly, the court granted the petitions for review as to those errors; denied the petitions for review in regard to petitioners' remaining arguments about the predecisional review process, alternative routes, and increased collocation; vacated the decisions of the Forest Service and the BLM; and remanded for further proceedings. View "Wild Virginia v. United States Forest Service" on Justia Law

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The federal government used the 433-acre Institute Facility for synthetic rubber production during World War II. In 1947, UCC purchased the Facility and began manufacturing hydrocarbon and agricultural products. In 1986-2015, the property was owned and operated by various companies, before ownership returned to UCC, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical. In 1984, UCC applied for a permit to operate hazardous waste management units, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), 42 U.S.C. 6901. The EPA published a report documenting groundwater contamination at the Facility. Since 1988, as part of the permitting process, the EPA instituted corrective actions at the Facility to address groundwater contamination. In 2013, the West Virginia Department of Administration transferred land to West Virginia State University (WVSU), so that WVSU was immediately adjacent to the Facility. WVSU refused to sign an environmental covenant agreeing not to use the groundwater and ultimately filed suit in state court, asserting state and common law claims and seeking remedial measures, beyond those recommended by the EPA.Defendants removed the action to federal court invoking federal question jurisdiction, diversity jurisdiction, and federal officer jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. 1331, 1332, 1441, 1442, and 1446. The Fourth Circuit affirmed a remand to state court. Defendants were not “acting under” the “subjection, guidance, or control” of the EPA. There is no federal question jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. 1331, over WVSU’s state claims because they neither challenge an EPA-directed CERCLA “cleanup” under nor arise from RCRA remedial measures and, thus, are not preempted. View "West Virginia State University Board of Governors v. The Dow Chemical Co." on Justia Law

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In 2008, Zito purchased a beachfront house and lot on Nags Head (a barrier island). In 2016, the house burned down. The lot is governed by North Carolina’s Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA): buildings with less than 5,000 square feet must be set back at least 60 feet or 30 times the local rate of erosion, whichever is farther, from the vegetation line. Buildings of less than 2,000 square feet built before June 1979 fall under a grandfather provision, requiring a setback of only 60 feet from the vegetation line. The Zito property qualifies for the grandfather provision but is set back only 12 feet from the vegetation line. In 2018, the coastline by the property eroded at an average rate of six feet per year. Experts indicate that coastal erosion and rising sea levels could cause the property to be underwater by 2024. The permit officer denied Zito’s application to rebuild The Coastal Resources Commission denied a variance, informing Zito of the right to appeal in state superior court.Zito filed suit in federal court, arguing that CAMA’s restrictions amounted to an unconstitutional taking. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The Commission qualifies as an arm of the state subject to the protection of sovereign immunity; the Eleventh Amendment bars Fifth Amendment taking claims against states in federal court where the state’s courts remain open to adjudicate such claims. View "Zito v. North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission" on Justia Law

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North Carolina filed suit in state court seeking recovery of an unpaid civil penalty against the Marine Corps for failing an air quality compliance test. After the federal government defendants removed to federal court, the district court dismissed the case.The Fourth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that the Clean Air Act does not preclude removal but does waive sovereign immunity as to the penalty at issue here. The court concluded that the United States properly removed this suit under the federal officer removal statute and rejected North Carolina's contention that the Clean Air Act's state suit provision, 42 U.S.C. 7604(e), implicitly carves out a narrow exception to removal that precludes federal adjudication of this federal immunity defense. Rather, these two statutes are capable of coexistence and, contrary to North Carolina's argument, section 7604(e) does not require actions brought in state court to remain there. The court also concluded that the Clean Air Act unambiguously and unequivocally waives the United States' sovereign immunity as to all civil penalties assessed pursuant to state air pollution law, including punitive penalties like the one at issue here. The court remanded for further proceedings. View "North Carolina v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit considered two petitions for review challenging FERC's issuance of a license to McMahan, authorizing McMahan to operate the Bynum Hydroelectric Project on the Haw River in North Carolina. Assuming without deciding that a state may waive its certification authority under section 401 of the Clean Water Act by coordinating with an applicant in a scheme to defeat the statutory review period through a process of withdrawing and resubmitting the certification application, the court concluded that FERC's finding of coordination between McMahan and NCDEQ is not supported by substantial evidence. Furthermore, without evidence of improper coordination, the court concluded that FERC erred by determining that North Carolina waived its certification authority under section 401.In Case No. 20-1655, the court granted NCDEQ's petition for review of FERC's determination that NCDEQ waived its rights under the Clean Water Act to issue a water quality certification for the Project. The court vacated the license issued by FERC and remanded with instructions for FERC to reissue the license to include the water-quality conditions imposed by NCDEQ. In Case No. 20-1671, the court dismissed for lack of jurisdiction that portion of PK Ventures' petition for review challenging the validity of McMahan's state applications for a section 401 certification. Finding no merit to the remaining claims, the court otherwise denied the petition for review. View "North Carolina Department of Environmental Equality v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Red River on the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act claim. Plaintiffs filed suit alleging that Red River had violated the Clean Water Act, the Surface Mining Act, and, in the alternative, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Plaintiffs' claims stemmed from alleged discharges of pollutants from point sources at Red River's now-inactive mine, and Red River's activities at the mine were governed by a combined Clean Water Act and Surface Mining Act permit issued by Virginia.The court held that, because the Surface Mining Act's lack of a permit shield supersedes, amends, or modifies the Clean Water Act's permit shield, the saving clause prevents liability under the Surface Mining Act for conduct that is otherwise shielded from liability under the Clean Water Act. The court explained that permitting liability under the Surface Mining Act for pollutant discharges that are otherwise exempted from liability under a Clean Water Act permit would contravene the text of the saving clause by allowing the Surface Mining Act to supersede, modify, or amend the Clean Water Act's permitting regime. View "Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards v. Red River Coal Company, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Society field suit challenging the Corps' issuance of a permit to the Town of Ocean Isle Beach to construct a shoreline jetty to stop chronic erosion of its beaches. The Society claimed that numerous analyses conducted by the Corps in both its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and its Record of Decision were inconsistent with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA).The Fourth Circuit applied a deferential standard of review under the Administrative Procedure Act and affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment for the Corps, concluding that the Corps adequately examined the relevant facts and data and provided explanations that rationally connected those facts and data with the choices that it made. In this case, the Corps collected a broad range of data drawn from the facts and objectives of the project at issue, historical statistics and records, computer analyses, and opinions of other specialized agencies, and it analyzed those data to make judgments ultimately based on its own special expertise under the numerous criteria imposed by NEPA and the CWA. View "National Audubon Society v. United States Army Corps of Engineers" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit granted MVP's petition for review challenging the Department's denial of MVP's Clean Water Act certification. MVP seeks to build a natural gas pipeline running through North Carolina and its rivers, streams, and wetlands.The court held that the Department's denial is consistent with the State’s regulations and the Clean Water Act. The court explained that it need not decide which version of the certification regulation to consider because, under the current version of the regulation, the Department's minimization reasoning is consistent with its water quality standards: namely, its riparian buffer rules. Furthermore, the Department properly denied certification, as it found that the temporal adjustment constituted a practical alternative that would better minimize harm to the State's waters. However, the court held that the Department did not adequately explain its decision in light of the administrative record. While the Department's decision adequately explained its concerns with the Mainline Project and the adverse effects of the Southgate Project, the court concluded that it failed to address the hearing officer's minimization findings and explain why it chose to deny certification rather than granting it conditionally. Accordingly, the court vacated the denial and remanded for additional agency explanation. The court remanded for further proceedings. View "Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC v. Sierra Club" on Justia Law