Justia Environmental Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
National Wildlife Federation v. United States Army Corps of Engineers
The Middle Mississippi is the 195-mile-long stretch from St. Louis, Missouri, where the Missouri River flows into the Mississippi, to Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi and doubles its flow. The 1910 Rivers and Harbors Act authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to construct permanent river training structures in the Middle Mississippi and perform supplemental dredging to maintain a channel sufficient for commercial traffic. The Corps has for decades built and maintained structures—dikes, jetties, and chevrons—along the Middle Mississippi to ensure that the channel is at least nine feet deep and 300 feet wide for commercial navigation. In 1976, under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Corps prepared an environmental impact statement (EIS) assessing the project's ecological impacts. In 2013, the Corps decided to supplement its 1976 EIS, based on newly designated threatened and endangered species, and new information on the effects of river training structures and dredging. In the final supplemental EIS and record of decision, the Corps chose the “Continue Construction Alternative.” Because the exact locations and types of future river training structures are unknown, the supplemental statement studied environmental impacts at a programmatic level and will perform site-specific environmental assessments before actually building additional river training structures.In a challenge brought by environmental groups, the Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the government, rejecting arguments that the supplemental EIS did not comply with the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, 121 Stat. 1041, or the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. 4321. View "National Wildlife Federation v. United States Army Corps of Engineers" on Justia Law
Driftless Area Land Conservancy v. Rural Utilities Service
Utility companies responsible for a planned electric transmission line asked the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to allow construction across the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge alongside an existing road and railroad. Rural Utilities Service completed an environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. 4332(2)(C). FWS adopted the statement and issued a right-of-way permit.While litigation was pending, the utility companies sought to slightly alter the route and asked FWS to consider a land exchange. FWS discovered that it had relied on incorrect easement documents in issuing its original determination. It revoked the determination and permit but promised to consider the proposed land exchange. The district court ruled in favor of the environmental groups but declined to enjoin ongoing construction of the project on private land outside the Refuge.The Seventh Circuit vacated in part, first rejecting a mootness argument. FWS has revoked the compatibility determination but has not promised never to issue a new permit. However, FWS’s current position does not meet the criteria of finality. Whatever hardship the plaintiffs face comes not from FWS’s promise to consider a land exchange but from the Utilities’ decision to build on their own land, so the district court erred in reviewing the merits of the proposed land exchange. Plaintiffs’ request for relief against the Utilities under NEPA likewise is premature. Adopting the environmental impact statement did not “consummate” the decisionmaking process. View "Driftless Area Land Conservancy v. Rural Utilities Service" on Justia Law
United States v. Doe Corp.
The government is investigating Doe for suspected criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. With a search warrant, agents conducted a day-long search of Doe’s premises. An hour into the search, agents ordered Doe to turn off all security cameras. After the search, Doe contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office and accused the agents of violating the Fourth Amendment in executing the search. Doe also filed an emergency motion to unseal the affidavit supporting the warrant, attaching still images from security-camera video footage of the search, showing agents pointing guns at employees.. Doe refused the government’s request to view the original video. The government served Doe with a grand-jury subpoena for the video.Doe argued that the video was irrelevant to the potential Clean Water Act violations and that the subpoena was for the improper purpose of conducting pre-trial discovery before Doe’s criminal trial or for potential civil litigation over the alleged constitutional violation. The government argued that “the grand jury is entitled to consider potential evidence of law enforcement misconduct in evaluating whether to indict” and that the video could be directly relevant, because it could provide details on what evidence was collected during the search, which employees had access to evidence, and whether anyone tampered with potential evidence. The district court quashed the subpoena. The Seventh Circuit reversed. The grand jury is entitled to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the collection of evidence relevant to its investigation. View "United States v. Doe Corp." on Justia Law
Indemnity Insurance Co. of North America v. Westfield Insurance Co.
Sandstone operated large-scale swine farms in Scott County. Its owner also owned Red Oak. In 2007-2008, Westfield insured Sandstone. After 2008, Indemnity insured Sandstone. Star provided insurance to Red Oak. Sandstone was named as an additional insured under Star’s policy in 2009. In 2010, neighbors brought private nuisance claims against Sandstone in Illinois state court (“Marsh action”). Sandstone notified the three insurance companies. Each agreed to defend Sandstone, subject to a reservation of rights. Indemnity, citing a coverage exclusion for claims involving ”pollutants,” sought a declaratory judgment that it had no duty to defend. Sandstone withdrew its tender of defense to Indemnity, which dismissed its suit without prejudice. Star and Westfield split the defense of the Marsh action. An Illinois appellate court held that odor claims involving a hog facility are not “traditional environmental pollution” and are not excluded under insurance policy pollution exclusions, which foreclosed Indemnity’s earlier argument. Sandstone notified Indemnity, which filed another federal declaratory judgment action. In the Marsh action, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Sandstone. Westfield and then sought reimbursement of their defense costs.Reversing the district court, the Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of Indemnity. Its insurance is "excess" and Star had a duty to defend, so Indemnity’s “other insurance” provision relieves it of any duty to defend Sandstone. Indemnity is not estopped from asserting that defense because it promptly responded to Sandstone’s tender of defense. View "Indemnity Insurance Co. of North America v. Westfield Insurance Co." on Justia Law
Von Duprin LLC v. Major Holdings, LLC
The environmental harm at the Indianapolis property developed over at least 50 years. Four adjacent properties have changed hands several times and have been used for manufacturing and industrial businesses that used degreasers and various chemical products. The solvents have degraded over time and have seeped into the groundwater and soil in the surrounding residential area. Investigations showed that vapors emitting from the underground contamination have intruded into homes and a local park. Major acquired the property in 2007 and has not released any hazardous materials.Von Duprin. whose predecessor once owned property in the area, undertook cleanup efforts and sought to recover some of those costs and future remediation costs. Von Duprin sued former and current owners and operators of the properties under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9601. Current owners or operators of a site where hazardous materials were released may be held liable under CERCLA without having caused a release.The district court found that Von Duprin and two other former or current owners and operators in the area bore responsibility for portions of the environmental harm, then assigned liability among and between all three parties. The Seventh Circuit affirmed in part but vacated the court’s threshold determination under section 107(a) of CERCLA that liability for remediating the environmental harm is divisible—capable of being apportioned on the basis of principles of causation—among and between the parties to this litigation. View "Von Duprin LLC v. Major Holdings, LLC" on Justia Law
Schmucker v. Johnson Controls, Inc.
In 1937-2006, Johnson operated a Goshen, Indiana manufacturing plant that used chlorinated volatile organic compounds in a degreasing process. Some of the chemicals reached the groundwater. TCE, a carcinogen, is part of the breakdown process. Johnson, under the supervision of Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management, began cleanup while the plant was still operating, ensuring that houses using wells were connected to the city’s water mains, pumping and treating groundwater, and determining that the municipal water supply did not come from the contaminated plume. TCE did appear in the air above the plume, so houses were treated to prevent the gas from entering.Plaintiffs sued under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), 42 U.S.C. 6972(a), The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Johnson, finding that Johnson was not in violation of any permit, standard, regulation, condition, prohibition, or order. The risk from the TCE is currently neither imminent nor substantial. View "Schmucker v. Johnson Controls, Inc." on Justia Law
Prairie Rivers Network v. Dynegy Midwest Generation, LLC
The Vermilion Power Station operated until 2011, burning coal and generating coal ash that was mixed with water and deposited into unlined pits, close to the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, navigable water protected by the Clean Water Act. A National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits the discharge of wastewater from the station’s operations into the Middle Fork, 33 U.S.C. 1342(b). PRN, a nonprofit environmental group, sued, alleging the permit does not authorize the coal ash seepage into the groundwater, which then enters the Middle Fork. Because PRN’s individual members “live near, study, work, and recreate in and around, the Middle Fork, including in the vicinity of the Vermilion Power Station,” PRN maintains it has an interest in stopping and remedying these alleged discharges, which degrade the Middle Fork’s water quality and its “aesthetic beauty and ecological vitality.” The district court held that the Act does not regulate groundwater discharges, even when that groundwater connects to regulated surface waters. The Seventh Circuit stayed PRN’s appeal pending the Supreme Court’s 2020 “County of Maui” decision, which established a multi-factor test to determine whether groundwater discharges fall under the Clean Water Act’s ambit. The court then declined to assess "Maui’s" reach, concluding that PRN lacks standing. PRN has more than 1000 members yet fails to show that at least one of those individuals has standing. Associational standing requires more specificity. View "Prairie Rivers Network v. Dynegy Midwest Generation, LLC" on Justia Law
Liebhart v. SPX Corporation
In the 1950s, a Watertown building began manufacturing operations, using PCBs. Congress banned the manufacture of PCBs in 1979. In 2004, the plant closed. In 2010, SPX commissioned an environmental study and confirmed that PCBs permeated the property. SPX's proposed remediation plan was approved by the EPA. SPX subsequently decided to demolish the building. In 2014, SPX notified the EPA of its demolition plans and its intent to complete a “self-implementing on-site cleanup” under the implementing regulation for the Toxic Substances Control Act. The contractors broke ground before EPA approval.The Liebhart residential properties adjoin the facility. The Liebharts claim that no dust-suppression methods were used. After the demolition work ended, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) ordered SPX to take soil samples, which indicated that PCBs were present on the Liebharts’ properties. Many samples exceeded the Wisconsin law residential standard. SPX submitted proposed remediation plans.The Liebharts sued SPX and its contractors under the Toxic Substances Control Act, 15 U.S.C. 2601, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 42 U.S.C. 6901. They argued that compliance with DNR guidance was not enough; the remediation needed to comply with the U.S. EPA’s “PCB Spill Cleanup Policy.”The district court granted the defendants summary judgment, refusing to issue an injunction. The DNR authorized and began to supervise the clean-up. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Although there are colorable arguments that the DNR’s plan is not ideal, more is required to find that a court abused its discretion by withholding equitable relief. The Liebharts have not established substantive inadequacies in the state plan or irregularities in the DNR’s enforcement. View "Liebhart v. SPX Corporation" on Justia Law
Wisconsin Central LTD v. Soo Line Railroad Co.
In 1987, Central purchased certain Soo assets, including LST rail lines. Soo agreed to retain liability and indemnify Central for “all claims for environmental matters relating to ownership of the Assets or the operation of LST that are asserted” within 10 years of closing, after which Central would assume all liability and indemnify Soo. Years later, contamination was discovered in a former Ashland industrial area, now Kreher Park, which contains a railroad right-of-way purchased by Central under the Agreement. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) identified an old factory as the likely source; its owner, Northern, named as a potentially responsible party (PRP), undertook to shift responsibility to the railroads. Central kept Soo apprised of the situation. Central sent notification to Soo in 1997 that it was seeking indemnification for environmental matters, including at Kreher Park. Soo did not agree to indemnify or defend.In 2002, the EPA designated the area as a Superfund site (CERCLA, 42 U.S.C. 9601). In 2011, the EPA issued PRP notices to Central, Soo, Northern, and others. Northern sued Central, Soo, and the city for its cleanup expenses. The EPA cited evidence that the railroads engaged in activities contributing to the contamination. The railroads settled the EPA and Northern claims for $10.5 million.In breach of contract litigation between the railroads, the district court granted Soo summary judgment, finding that no claim had been asserted during the claim period. Central then argued that it should not be responsible for the portion of the environmental claims attributable to operations and land not purchased by Central. The court rejected the argument and awarded Soo $10,799,427, prejudgment interest, and $1,776,764 for attorneys’ fees. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. No “claim” was asserted against the railroads during the Agreement’s claim period; Northern never threatened litigation and the WDNR did not take any action that imposed any legal duties or impending legal peril on either railroad. The operation of the railroad business, not just the ownership of the assets, was identified by the EPA as contributing to the contamination; the claims are within the scope of the indemnification clause. View "Wisconsin Central LTD v. Soo Line Railroad Co." on Justia Law
Prairie Rivers Network v. Dynegy Midwest Generation, LLC
The Network filed suit under the Clean Water Act against Dynegy, the owner of an Illinois power station, claiming that Dynegy’s station was releasing contaminants into groundwater. The district court dismissed the suit concluding that the Act does not regulate groundwater. An appeal focused on whether and how the Act applies to the alleged groundwater contamination after the Supreme Court’s 2020 “County of Maui” decision. Three organizations sought permission to file amicus briefs in support of Dynegy’s position. The Network argued that each brief only parrots Dynegy’s arguments, wasting the court’s time. The Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure state that a prospective amicus must explain why its brief is desirable and why the matters asserted are relevant. The Seventh Circuit Practitioner’s Handbook adds that the court looks at whether the submission will assist the judges by presenting ideas, arguments, theories, insights, facts, or data that are not found in the parties' briefs.The Seventh Circuit granted the motion, stating that amicus briefs should not serve only to count which interest groups are promoting which outcome. In this case: the Illinois Environmental Regulatory Group briefly presents the history of Illinois groundwater regulation from before the Clean Water Act, lending context to the cited cases; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce provides insight into how an alternative federal scheme would apply, absent Clean Water Act regulation; and the Washington Legal Foundation’s brief offers its own theory for how to best fit "Maui" into the existing federal scheme regulating the pollutants at issue. View "Prairie Rivers Network v. Dynegy Midwest Generation, LLC" on Justia Law