Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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The company wants to mine raw uranium ore from a site near Coles Hill, Virginia. Virginia law completely prohibits uranium mining. The company alleged that, under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) preempts state uranium mining laws like Virginia’s and makes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) the lone regulator. The district court, the Fourth Circuit, and the Supreme Court rejected the company’s argument. The AEA does not preempt Virginia’s law banning uranium mining; the law grants the NRC extensive and sometimes exclusive authority to regulate nearly every aspect of the nuclear fuel life cycle except mining, expressly stating that the NRC’s regulatory powers arise only “after [uranium’s] removal from its place of deposit in nature,” 42 U.S.C. 2092. If the federal government wants to control uranium mining on private land, it must purchase or seize the land by eminent domain and make it federal land, indicating that state authority remains untouched. Rejecting “field preemption: and “conflict preemption” arguments, the Court stated that the only thing a court can be sure of is what can be found in the law itself and the compromise that Congress actually struck in the AEA leaves mining regulation on private land to the states. View "Virginia Uranium, Inc. v. Warren" on Justia Law

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The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) set aside 104 million acres of federally-owned land for preservation, creating 10 new national parks, monuments, and preserves (units), 16 U.S.C. 3102(4). In establishing boundaries, Congress followed natural features rather than enclosing only federally-owned lands, sweeping in more than 18 million acres of state, Native, and private land, which could have become subject to many National Park Service rules, 54 U.S.C. 100751 (Organic Act). ANILCA Section 103(c) states that only “public lands,” defined as most federally-owned lands, waters, and associated interests, within any unit’s boundaries are “deemed” part of that unit and that no state, Native, or private lands “shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within units." The Service may “acquire such lands,” after which it may administer the land as public lands within units. Sturgeon traveled by hovercraft up the Nation River within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley Preserve unit. Park rangers informed him that the Service’s rules (36 CFR 2.17(e)) prohibit operating a hovercraft on navigable waters “located within [a park’s] boundaries.” That regulation, issued under the Service’s Organic Act authority, applies to parks nationwide without regard to the ownership of submerged lands, tidelands, or lowlands. The district court and the Ninth Circuit denied Sturgeon relief. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The Nation River is not public land under ANILCA. Running waters cannot be owned; under the Submerged Lands Act, Alaska, not the United States, holds “title to and ownership" of the lands beneath navigable waters, 43 U.S.C. 1311. Even if the United States has an “interest” in the River under the reserved-water-rights doctrine, the River itself would not be “public land.” Section 103(c) exempts non-public lands, including waters, from Park Service regulations, which apply “solely” to public lands within the units. View "Sturgeon v. Frost" on Justia Law

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In 2001, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the dusky gopher frog as an endangered species, under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, 16 U.S.C. 1533(a)(1), which required the Service to designate the frog's “critical habitat.” The Service proposed designating a site in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana (Unit 1). The frog had once lived in Unit 1, but the land had long been used as a commercial timber plantation; no frogs had been spotted there for decades. The Service concluded that Unit 1 met the statutory definition of unoccupied critical habitat because of its rare, high-quality breeding ponds and distance from existing frog populations. The Service commissioned a report, which found that designation might bar future development, depriving the owners of up to $33.9 million, but concluded that the potential costs were not disproportionate to the conservation benefits and designated Unit 1 as critical habitat. The owners sued, contending that the closed-canopy timber plantation on Unit 1 could not be critical habitat for the frog, which lives in open-canopy forests. The district court and Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court vacated. The decision not to exclude an area from critical habitat is subject to judicial review. An area is eligible for designation as critical habitat only if it is habitat for the species. Section 1533(a)(3)(A)(i), the sole source of authority for critical-habit designations, states that when the Secretary lists a species as endangered he must also “designate any habitat of such species which is then considered to be critical habitat.” Whether the frog could survive in Unit 1; whether habitat can include areas where the species could not currently survive; and whether the assessment of the costs and benefits of designation and resulting decision were arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion, must be addressed on remand. View "Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service" on Justia Law

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The river basin is formed by the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, which flow south through Georgia and converge at Lake Seminole, just north of Florida, where the Apalachicola River begins and flows south into the Gulf of Mexico. Florida sued, seeking a decree equitably apportioning the basin’s waters. The Supreme Court agreed to exercise its original jurisdiction and appointed a Special Master. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declined to waive sovereign immunity. The Master recommended that the Court dismiss Florida’s complaint, concluding that Florida did not present clear and convincing evidence that its injuries could be redressed by a decree capping Georgia’s upstream water consumption if the decree does not bind the Corps. The Supreme Court remanded, concluding that the Special Master applied too strict a standard. In interstate water disputes raising questions beyond the interpretation of an interstate compact's language, the doctrine of equitable apportionment applies. Equitable apportionment is flexible and requires consideration of physical and climatic conditions, the consumptive use of water in the several sections of the river, the character and rate of return flows, the extent of established uses, the availability of storage water, the practical effect of wasteful uses, and the damage to upstream areas as compared to the benefits to downstream areas if a limitation is imposed. Extensive, specific factual findings are essential. Until the Master makes the findings necessary to determine the nature and scope of likely harm caused by the absence of water and the amount of additional water necessary to ameliorate that harm significantly, Florida should not have to prove the details of a workable decree by “clear and convincing” evidence but only that, applying the principles of “flexibility” and “approximation,” it is likely to prove possible to fashion such a decree. At this stage and in light of certain assumptions, Florida made a sufficient showing that the extra water that would result from its proposed consumption cap would lead to increased streamflow in Florida’s Apalachicola River and significantly redress the economic and ecological harm that Florida has alleged. The United States has indicated that the Corps will cooperate. View "Florida v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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The river basin is formed by the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, which flow south through Georgia and converge at Lake Seminole, just north of Florida, where the Apalachicola River begins and flows south into the Gulf of Mexico. Florida sued, seeking a decree equitably apportioning the basin’s waters. The Supreme Court agreed to exercise its original jurisdiction and appointed a Special Master. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declined to waive sovereign immunity. The Master recommended that the Court dismiss Florida’s complaint, concluding that Florida did not present clear and convincing evidence that its injuries could be redressed by a decree capping Georgia’s upstream water consumption if the decree does not bind the Corps. The Supreme Court remanded, concluding that the Special Master applied too strict a standard. In interstate water disputes raising questions beyond the interpretation of an interstate compact's language, the doctrine of equitable apportionment applies. Equitable apportionment is flexible and requires consideration of physical and climatic conditions, the consumptive use of water in the several sections of the river, the character and rate of return flows, the extent of established uses, the availability of storage water, the practical effect of wasteful uses, and the damage to upstream areas as compared to the benefits to downstream areas if a limitation is imposed. Extensive, specific factual findings are essential. Until the Master makes the findings necessary to determine the nature and scope of likely harm caused by the absence of water and the amount of additional water necessary to ameliorate that harm significantly, Florida should not have to prove the details of a workable decree by “clear and convincing” evidence but only that, applying the principles of “flexibility” and “approximation,” it is likely to prove possible to fashion such a decree. At this stage and in light of certain assumptions, Florida made a sufficient showing that the extra water that would result from its proposed consumption cap would lead to increased streamflow in Florida’s Apalachicola River and significantly redress the economic and ecological harm that Florida has alleged. The United States has indicated that the Corps will cooperate. View "Florida v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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The Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1362, prohibits “any addition of any pollutant to navigable waters,” defined as “the waters of the United States.” Section 1311(a) contains exceptions, including permitting schemes under the EPA's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program and an Army Corps of Engineers program, which encompass the “waters of the United States.” The EPA and the Corps proffered the “Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule,” which “imposes no enforceable duty on any state, local, or tribal governments, or the private sector,” 80 Fed. Reg. 37102 and “does not establish any regulatory requirements.” Objectors challenged the Rule in district courts. Many filed “protective” petitions in Circuit Courts to preserve their challenges should their district court lawsuits be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction under 33 U.S.C. 1369(b), which enumerates EPA actions for which review lies directly and exclusively in the federal courts of appeals. Such actions include EPA actions “approving or promulgating any effluent limitation or other limitation under section 1311, 1312, 1316, or 1345,” and EPA actions “issuing or denying any permit under section 1342.” The Sixth Circuit denied motions to dismiss consolidated actions. The Supreme Court reversed. The Rule falls outside section 1369(b)(1), so challenges must be filed in district courts. It is not an “effluent limitation,” “on quantities, rates, and concentrations” of pollutants, nor is it an “other limitation under section 1311; it simply announces a regulatory definition. The Rule was promulgated under section 1361(a), which grants the EPA general rulemaking authority. The Rule neither issues nor denies NPDES permits under section 1342. View "National Association of Manufacturers. v. Department of Defense" on Justia Law

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The Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1362, prohibits “any addition of any pollutant to navigable waters,” defined as “the waters of the United States.” Section 1311(a) contains exceptions, including permitting schemes under the EPA's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program and an Army Corps of Engineers program, which encompass the “waters of the United States.” The EPA and the Corps proffered the “Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule,” which “imposes no enforceable duty on any state, local, or tribal governments, or the private sector,” 80 Fed. Reg. 37102 and “does not establish any regulatory requirements.” Objectors challenged the Rule in district courts. Many filed “protective” petitions in Circuit Courts to preserve their challenges should their district court lawsuits be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction under 33 U.S.C. 1369(b), which enumerates EPA actions for which review lies directly and exclusively in the federal courts of appeals. Such actions include EPA actions “approving or promulgating any effluent limitation or other limitation under section 1311, 1312, 1316, or 1345,” and EPA actions “issuing or denying any permit under section 1342.” The Sixth Circuit denied motions to dismiss consolidated actions. The Supreme Court reversed. The Rule falls outside section 1369(b)(1), so challenges must be filed in district courts. It is not an “effluent limitation,” “on quantities, rates, and concentrations” of pollutants, nor is it an “other limitation under section 1311; it simply announces a regulatory definition. The Rule was promulgated under section 1361(a), which grants the EPA general rulemaking authority. The Rule neither issues nor denies NPDES permits under section 1342. View "National Association of Manufacturers. v. Department of Defense" on Justia Law