Justia Environmental Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
Sierra Club v. United States Environmental Protection Agency
The Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to establish national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for certain pollutants. To achieve, maintain, and enforce those standards, every state develops a State Implementation Plan (SIP), which the EPA reviews and, after public notice and comment, approves or disapproves. Upon approval, a SIP—and all the state regulations it includes—becomes enforceable in federal court. If the EPA determines that its prior approval of a SIP was in error, the EPA can revise the plan using the Clean Air Act’s error-correction provision, 42 U.S.C. 7410(k)(6). For almost 50 years, Ohio’s SIP included an air nuisance rule (ANR) that made unlawful the emission of various substances in a manner or amount that endangered public health, safety, or welfare, or caused unreasonable injury or damage to property. In 2020, the EPA proposed removing the ANR from Ohio’s SIP using the Act’s error-correction provision.After public comment, the EPA finalized the removal of the ANR from Ohio’s SIP on the grounds that the state had not relied on the rule to implement, maintain, or enforce any NAAQS. Objectors argued that the EPA improperly invoked section 7410(k)(6) and acted arbitrarily. The Sixth Circuit remanded without vacatur. The objectors established that vacatur of the EPA’s decision is sufficiently likely to redress injuries to their asserted physical, recreational, and aesthetic interests, and have established standing; they also established standing based on their asserted procedural injury. View "Sierra Club v. United States Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law
Abbott v. E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.
In the 1950s, DuPont began discharging C-8—a “forever” chemical that accumulates in the human body and the environment—into the Ohio River, landfills, and the air surrounding its West Virginia plant. By the 1960s, DuPont learned that C-8 is toxic to animals and, by the 1980s, that it is potentially a human carcinogen. DuPont’s discharges increased until 2000. Evidence subsequently confirmed that C-8 caused several diseases among those drinking the contaminated water. In a class action lawsuit, DuPont promised to treat the affected water and to fund a scientific process concerning the impact of C-8 exposure. A panel of scientists conducted an approximately seven-year epidemiological study of the blood samples and medical records of more than 69,000 affected community members, while the litigation was paused. The settlement limited the claims that could be brought against DuPont based on the study’s determination of which diseases prevalent in the communities were likely linked to C-8 exposure. The resulting cases were consolidated in multidistrict litigation. After two bellwether trials and a post-bellwether trial reached verdicts against DuPont, the parties settled the remaining cases.More class members filed suit when they became sick or discovered the connection between their diseases and C-8. In this case, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the application of collateral estoppel to specific issues that were unanimously resolved in the three prior jury trials, the exclusion of certain evidence based on the initial settlement agreement, and rejection of DuPont’s statute-of-limitations defense.. View "Abbott v. E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co." on Justia Law
Sherwood v. Tennessee Valley Authority
TVA's “15-foot rule” provided that TVA would remove all trees from rights-of-way if the trees had the potential to grow over 15 feet tall, even if the trees did not pose a threat to power lines. Owners claimed that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) required the TVA to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the rule because it was a new major federal action. Following two remands, TVA conceded that the rule violated NEPA and asserted that it had published a notice in the Federal Register to inform the public that it would prepare a programmatic EIS to evaluate the 15-foot rule. The court issued an injunction but stated that the plaintiffs would need to file a separate lawsuit to challenge the sufficiency of the EIS. TVA later successfully moved to dissolve the injunction, claiming that it had held a statutory public comment period and issued a final programmatic EIS, rejecting the 15-foot rule and adopting “Alternative C: Condition-Based Control Strategy.”The Sixth Circuit reversed. The district court has not yet determined, in light of the administrative record, whether TVA took a hard look at the environmental consequences of its action, and TVA’s action has not been shown to be so different from the 15-foot rule as to warrant a whole new suit to obtain judicial review. View "Sherwood v. Tennessee Valley Authority" on Justia Law
Greg Adkisson v. Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc
TVA, wholly owned by the U.S. government, 16 U.S.C. 831, operates Tennessee's Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant. A containment dike that retained coal-ash sludge failed in 2008, causing 5.4 million cubic yards of coal-ash sludge to spill to adjacent property. TVA and the EPA responded under the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan. TVA, as the lead agency, engaged Jacobs as its “prime contractor providing project planning, management, and oversight,” including evaluating potential hazards to human health and safety. Jacobs submitted a Safety and Health Plan. More than 60 of Jacobs’s former employees sued, claiming that they were exposed to coal ash and particulate “fly ash” during this cleanup. The suits were consolidated.The district court denied Jacobs’s motions seeking derivative discretionary-function immunity, reasoning that Jacobs would be entitled to immunity only if it adhered to its contract and there were genuine disputes of material fact as to whether Jacobs acted within the scope of its authority. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs but did not designate any particular theory, as listed in the jury instructions, for which Jacobs could be held liable, broadly finding that Jacobs “failed to adhere to the terms of its contract," or the Plan. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Jacobs is immune from suit only if TVA is immune; TVA would not have been immune from suit on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims raise either “inconsistency” or “grave-interference” concerns. View "Greg Adkisson v. Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc" on Justia Law
Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products, LP. v. NCR Corp.
Michigan's Kalamazoo River was contaminated by papermills for decades, including by the release of PCBs. In 1990 the EPA added the River to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites; three paper companies formed KRSG, which entered an Administrative Order on Consent (AOC), agreeing to perform a remedial investigation. KRSG sought a declaratory judgment under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) against several firms (not including IP) that the defendants were liable for “any response costs that may be incurred" in the future "in connection with the Site.” In 1998, the district court found KRSG's members and defendants Rockwell and Eaton liable for the contamination. The Sixth Circuit affirmed in 2001.In 2010, GP sued NCR, IP, and Weyerhaeuser, alleging that NCR arranged the disposal of PCB-containing substances in the area and that Weyerhaeuser was an owner. IP argued that it was not liable because it owned papermill property only as a secured creditor. The defendants argued that GP’s claims were time-barred under CERCLA’s three-year limitations period for contribution and identified several events in the prior litigation that may have caused the limitations period to begin running. The district court found that the claims concerning 2006–07 Administrative Settlement Agreements and Orders on Consent and one sub-claim from the 1990 AOC were time-barred, but that the remaining claims were not.The Sixth Circuit reversed. When the district court entered the 1998 declaratory judgment in the KRSG litigation, CERCLA’s statute of limitations for contribution claims began running. View "Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products, LP. v. NCR Corp." on Justia Law
South Side Quarry, LLC v. Louisville & Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District
The Army Corps of Engineers designed a stormwater diversion system for Pond Creek, which drains into a large watershed in the Louisville area. It included Pond Creek’s tributary, Fishpool Creek, and a nearby basin, Vulcan Quarry. The Corps suggested connecting the two through a spillway. The Corps partnered with Metro Sewer District (MSD). MSD filed an eminent domain action. The court awarded MSD only an easement over the quarry and refused to impose water treatment obligations on the easement. MSD’s stream construction permit from the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet did not require treatment of the water or cleaning up any pollutants.In 2000, the project was completed. South Side bought Vulcan Quarry in 2012 and claimed that MSD had exceeded its easement by diverting all of Fishpool Creek. In 2018, South Side sent MSD notice of its intent to sue for violations of the Clean Water Act’s (CWA) “prohibition on the dumping of pollutants into U.S. waters,” the easement, and Kentucky-issued permits. The district court dismissed certain claims as time-barred and others because the notice failed to identify sewage as a pollutant, provide dates the pollution took place, and describe the source of the pollution.The Sixth Circuit affirmed. MSD did not need a CWA discharge permit when it built the spillway and does not need one now. The waters of Fishpool Creek and Vulcan Quarry are not meaningfully distinct; the spillway is the kind of water transfer that is exempt from the permitting process. View "South Side Quarry, LLC v. Louisville & Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District" on Justia Law
Ammex, Inc. v. Michigan Department of Agriculture
Ammex operates a duty-free gas station in Wayne County, Michigan, near the bridge to Canada, but positioned “beyond the exit point” for domestic commerce established by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In 2012, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) sought to enforce an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule requiring Wayne County gas stations to dispense low-pressure gasoline in the summer. MDARD, in conjunction with the EPA, implemented this rule to bring Southeast Michigan’s ozone levels into compliance with the Clean Air Act.Because of its unique location and certain sales privileges granted to it by U.S. customs law, Ammex resisted efforts to apply the rule to its gasoline sales. In 2019, the Sixth Circuit determined that MDARD was enforcing federal regulatory law, and was not in violation of the Supremacy Clause or dormant Foreign Commerce Clause. Ammex then argued that the environmental rule, properly construed, did not apply to Ammex and that the customs statute giving Ammex the right to sell duty-free goods supersedes the environmental regulation and renders it unenforceable against Ammex. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of those claims. the Summer Fuel Law unambiguously applies to Ammex and does not impact Ammex’s ability to sell gas duty-free. View "Ammex, Inc. v. Michigan Department of Agriculture" on Justia Law
F.P. Development, LLC. v. Charter Township of Canton
Canton’s 2006 Tree Ordinance prohibits the unpermitted removal, damage, or destruction of trees of specified sizes, with exceptions for agricultural operations, commercial nurseries, tree farms, and occupied lots smaller than two acres. If Canton issues a permit, the owner must replace removed trees on its own or someone else’s property or pay into Canton’s tree fund. For every landmark tree removed, an owner must replant three trees or pay $450. For every non-landmark tree removed as part of larger-scale tree removal, an owner must replant one tree or pay $300.In 2016, Canton approved the division of F.P.'s undeveloped property, noting the permitting requirement. The parcels were bisected by a county drainage ditch that was clogged with fallen trees and debris. The county refused to clear the ditch. F.P. contracted for the removal of the trees and debris and clearing other trees without a permit. Canton determined that F.P. had removed 14 landmark trees and 145 non-landmark trees. F.P. was required to either replant 187 trees or pay $47,898. F.P. filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983.The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for F.P. on its as-applied Fifth Amendment claim; although the ordinance, as applied to F.P., was not unconstitutional as a per se physical taking, it was unconstitutional as a regulatory taking and as an unconstitutional condition. Canton has not made the necessary individualized determination; the ordinance fails the “rough proportionality” required by Supreme Court precedent. View "F.P. Development, LLC. v. Charter Township of Canton" on Justia Law
American Premier Underwriters, Inc. v. General Electric Co.
In the 1930s and 1940s GE designed and manufactured self-propelled, electric passenger railcars that included liquid-cooled transformers. The transformers, which generated a great deal of heat, used a coolant called Pyranol that contains toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). GE sold some railcars to government entities whose trains operated on Penn Central lines. Pyranol from the transformers escaped and contaminated four Penn Central rail yards. APU, Penn Central’s successor, had to pay for the costly environmental cleanup and sued GE under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which makes four classes of “[c]overed persons” strictly liable for environmental contamination, 42 U.S.C. 9607(a). APU argued that GE “arranged for disposal” of hazardous PCB because it designed and manufactured transformers with pressure-release valves whose “natural function” was to discharge Pyranol when conditions required, it knew that “[t]he frequency of minor spills [was] large,” it took affirmative steps to direct spills onto the roadbed; and it implemented a fail-and-fix policy for defective transformers rather than recall them.The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment. GE is neither an arranger nor an operator under CERCLA. APU assigned away its contractual right to indemnification; any claims based on reassigned indemnity rights are time-barred. View "American Premier Underwriters, Inc. v. General Electric Co." on Justia Law
EPLET, LLC v. DTE Pontiac North, LLC
In 2007, GM sold a power plant to DTEPN, which leased the land under the plant for 10 years. DTEPN agreed to sell utilities produced at the plant to GM, to maintain the plant according to specific criteria, and to address any environmental issues. DTEPN’s parent company, Energy, guaranteed DTEPN’s utility, environmental, and maintenance obligations. Two years later, GM filed for bankruptcy. GM and DTEPN agreed to GM’s rejection of the contracts. DTEPN exercised its right to continue occupying the property. An environmental trust (RACER) assumed ownership of some GM industrial property, including the DTEPN land. DTEPN remained in possession until the lease expired. RACER then discovered that DTEPN had allowed the power plant to fall into disrepair and contaminate the property.The district court dismissed the claims against Energy, reasoning that RACER’s allegations did not support piercing the corporate veil and Energy’s guaranty terminated after GM rejected the contracts in bankruptcy.The Sixth Circuit reversed. Michigan courts have held that a breach of contract can justify piercing a corporate veil if the corporate form has been abused. By allegedly directing its wholly-owned subsidiary to stop maintaining the property, Energy exercised control over DTEPN in a way that wronged RACER. DTEPN is now judgment-proof because it was not adequately capitalized by Energy. RACER would suffer an unjust loss if the corporate veil is not pierced. Rejection in bankruptcy does not terminate the contract; the contract is considered breached, 11 U.S.C. 365(g). The utility services agreement and the lease are not severable from each other. Energy guaranteed DTEPN’s obligations under the utility agreement concerning maintenance, environmental costs, and remediation, so Energy’s guaranty is joined to DTEPN’s section 365(h) election. View "EPLET, LLC v. DTE Pontiac North, LLC" on Justia Law