Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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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

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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

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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

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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

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Ohio and Tennessee filed suit in 2015 to enjoin the Clean Water Rule, which purported to interpret the phrase “waters of the United States,” as used in the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1362(7), and, in 2018, sought a preliminary injunction against the Rule’s enforcement within their borders. In a 2018 Rule, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers suspended enforcement of the 2015 Rule; the Agencies gave notice of their intent to repeal (rather than merely suspend) the 2015 Rule. In 2019, the court denied the states’ motion with respect to the 2015 Rule on the ground that, suspended or not, the states had not shown a likelihood of imminent, irreparable harm. The Agencies formally repealed the 2015 rule. In 2020 they replaced the 2015 Rule with the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule.”The Sixth Circuit dismissed the states’ appeal as moot. Since the district court’s decision, the Agencies have repealed and replaced the rule that the states sought preliminarily to enjoin. The Agencies have already provided the states with relief; a preliminary injunction against the 2015 Rule’s enforcement in Ohio and Tennessee would lack any practical effect. There is no reasonable possibility that the 2015 Rule will again become effective in Ohio or Tennessee while this case remains pending. View "Ohio v. United States Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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The City of Flint and city and state officials allegedly caused, sustained, and covered up the poisoning of the people of Flint. Plaintiffs filed a 2017 “Master Complaint,” containing the allegations and claims made by plaintiffs across the coordinated litigation; “short-form” complaints charted certain components of the Master Complaint, including named defendants, alleged injuries, and claims. In this case, the district court declined to dismiss all defendants other than former State Treasurer Andy Dillon.Earlier in 2020, the Sixth Circuit, in "Waid," decided that the same officials who are defendants in this case plausibly violated plaintiffs’ substantive due process right to bodily integrity and are not entitled to qualified immunity and rejected Flint’s and Michigan Governor Whitmer’s arguments that the Eleventh Amendment required their dismissal. Defendant Johnson argued that the allegations against him in this case differently than those levied against him in Waid. The court concluded that there is no reason to treat Johnson differently. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting an argument that higher-ups should be treated differently than officials making decisions on the ground. . View "In re Flint Water Cases" on Justia Law

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For more than 60 years, Line 5 has carried oil from northwestern Wisconsin, across Michigan's Upper Peninsula, across the Straits of Mackinac, through the Lower Peninsula, ending in southwestern Ontario. The Clean Water Act requires oil pipeline operators to submit response plans to address the risk of a potential oil spill, 33 U.S.C. 1321(j)(5)(A)(i). The Act provides that the administering agency “shall . . . approve any plan” that satisfies six enumerated criteria. Over the past five years, Line 5’s operator (Enbridge) has submitted two response plans. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration evaluated the plans, determined each met the enumerated criteria, and approved both. The National Wildlife Federation sued. The district court found that the response plans satisfied the enumerated criteria but granted the Foundation summary judgment, holding that the agency had to comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).The Sixth Circuit reversed. ESA's requirement that federal agencies consult with the appropriate environmental authorities in order to ensure that the action is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species, 16 U.S.C. 1536(a)(2), and NEPA's requirement that federal agencies prepare an environmental impact statement for major federal actions that will affect the environment, 42 U.S.C. 4332(C), apply only to discretionary actions. Although the agency exercises “judgment” in applying the Clean Water Act criteria, its actions are not discretionary. View "National Wildlife Federation v. Secretary of the United States Department of Transportation" on Justia Law

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Goodrich operated chemical-manufacturing plants at a Calvert City, Kentucky industrial site. In 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the site a “Superfund Site” subject to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9601. PolyOne and Westlake disputed their share of the cleanup costs. The parties entered a settlement agreement in 2007: PolyOne must reimburse Westlake for 100% of “allocable costs,” and every five years, either party may demand arbitration to modify the amount or allocation of costs. Either party may file a complaint in federal court for a “de novo judicial determination” of which costs are allocable after the arbitration panel has issued an award. The arbitration award becomes null-and-void upon the filing of a complaint; the Agreement prohibits either party from even admitting the arbitration award into evidence. PolyOne requested a declaration that the judicial-relief provision is invalid under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C. 9 and that the Agreement’s other arbitration provisions are unenforceable. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of injunctive and declaratory relief. PolyOne has a strong case but its prior conduct does not align with its present position. Twice, PolyOne demanded arbitration. PolyOne seeks to enjoin the very arbitration it demanded in 2017. The court withheld judgment on whether PolyOne has waived its ability to challenge the arbitration provisions in the future. View "PolyOne Corp. v. Westlake Vinyls, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Clean Air Act directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for certain air pollutants, 42 U.S.C. 7409. Each state must propose a state implementation plan (SIP) that “specif[ies] the manner in which national . . . ambient air quality standards will be achieved and maintained” for approval by the EPA. A 1990 CAA amendment set a national Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) standard for gasoline. In 2004, the EPA informed Michigan that eight counties in southeast Michigan were “nonattainment” areas for the ozone NAAQS. In response, Michigan enacted the “Summer Fuel Law” to limit the RVP for gasoline sold during the summer months within those eight counties. After concluding that the revised RVP standards were “necessary” for the attainment of the ozone NAAQS, the EPA approved the incorporation of the Summer Fuel Law into Michigan’s SIP. Ammex unsuccessfully sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development from enforcing the Summer Fuel Law, arguing that the standard violates the Supremacy Clause and dormant Foreign Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion. MDARD’s enforcement of the standard is the enforcement of federal law. View "Ammex, Inc. v. Wenk" on Justia Law

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As a cost-saving measure, Flint's municipal water supply was switched from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the Flint River and was processed by an outdated and previously mothballed water treatment plant, with the approval of Michigan regulators and an engineering firm, and distributed without adding chemicals to counter the river water’s known corrosivity. Within days, residents complained of foul smelling and tasting water. Within weeks, some residents’ hair began to fall out and their skin developed rashes. Within a year, there were positive tests for E. coli, a spike in deaths from Legionnaires’ disease, and reports of dangerously high blood-lead levels in Flint children. The river water was 19 times more corrosive than the Lake Huron water pumped supplied by DWSD; without corrosion-control treatment, lead leached out of the lead-based service lines. The district court dismissed many claims and defendants in a suit by residents. The remaining defendants appealed with respect to the remaining 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim--that defendants violated their right to bodily integrity as guaranteed by the Substantive Due Process Clause. The Sixth Circuit concluded that plaintiffs pled a plausible Due Process violation regarding some defendants, rejecting their qualified immunity claims. The court reversed as to other defendants; plaintiffs alleged mere negligence, not a constitutional violation, against them. The court rejected a claim that the city was entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity based on Michigan's takeover of the city under the “Emergency Manager” law. View "Guertin v. Michigan" on Justia Law