Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

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The EPA has discretion not to commence withdrawal proceedings under 40 C.F.R. 123.64(b) even if it finds that a state's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program has not always complied with the requirements of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the EPA's decision affirming its previous refusal to commence withdrawal proceedings against Alabama. In regard to the four alleged violations, the court held that the EPA reasonably construed the statutory and regulatory text. The court also held that the EPA's decision not to commence withdrawal proceedings in the face of these alleged violations was not arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law. View "Cahaba Riverkeeper v. Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the district court ruling that the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had illegally renewed a permit allowing Western Energy Company to discharge rain and snow water into surrounding ditches and creeks from its Rosebud Coal Mine in Colstrip, Montana, holding that further fact-finding was required. In 2012, DEQ renewed a permit, which was modified in 2014, for Western Energy to discharge pollutants contained in waters that were created by ongoing precipitation-driven events. Plaintiffs brought this action alleging that the DEQ's permit renewal violated the Montana Water Quality Act and federal Clean Water Act. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) the Montana Board of Environmental Review was not required to make a new stream classification for the Yellowstone River drainage; (2) DEQ can lawfully allow the mine to monitor a sample of the discharges that are representative of the precipitation water being released, but the district court must determine whether those releases are actually representative of the mining and discharge activities that are taking place at the mine; and (3) remand was required to determine whether a "pollutant-impaired stream" should be monitored with a higher environmental standard than the current permit requires. View "Montana Environmental Information Center v. Western Energy Co." on Justia Law

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The Luskin Daughters 1996 Trust for the benefit of Lyndell Joy Luskin Ackerman, appealed a water court order dismissing its complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as for damages. The complaint alleged that the Trust and Steve and Heather Young owned adjacent parcels of land; that in 2017 the Youngs built a house that destroyed one or more ditches that had historically delivered spring water to the Trust’s property; and that those water rights had been used on the Trust’s property for purposes of irrigation, animal watering, wildlife, and recreation. The water court concluded that in the absence of an application for the determination of a water right, the Trust’s claim of interference by the Youngs with its unadjudicated appropriative rights to springs that arose on the Youngs’ land could not proceed before the water court. It therefore granted the Youngs’ motion, pursuant to C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1), (2), or (5), to dismiss. The Colorado Supreme Court found that while appropriation by diverting a specific amount of water and applying it to a beneficial purpose may entitle the appropriator to adjudicate a water right, according to the provisions of the applicable Colorado water law, it cannot afford a priority of use, even with respect to another specific user, without formal adjudication of a water right, in a specific amount, for a specific purpose, and relative to a specific structure for diversion. Therefore, the Court concluded the water court did not err in dismissing the Trust’s complaint. View "The Luskin Daughters 1996 Trust v. Young" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed suit alleging that the drainage system managed by defendants discharged pollutants into surrounding waters, in violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The Ninth Circuit held that the district court properly interpreted "discharges . . .from irrigated agriculture," as used in 33 U.S.C. 1342(l)(1), to mean discharges from activities related to crop production. However, the panel held that the district court erred by placing the burden of demonstrating eligibility for the permit exception on plaintiffs, rather than on defendants, and by misinterpreting "entirely," as used in section 1342(l)(1). In this case, the district court's interpretation of the word "entirely" to mean "majority"— which both parties now concede was erroneous—was thus the but-for cause of the dismissal of plaintiffs' Vega Claim. The panel also held that the district court erred by placing the burden on plaintiffs to demonstrate that the discharges were not covered under section 1342(l)(1), rather than placing the burden on defendants to demonstrate that the discharges were covered under section 1342(l)(1). Furthermore the district court erred by striking plaintiffs' seepage and sediment theories of liability from plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment because the first amended complaint encompassed those claims. Accordingly, the panel reversed and remanded. View "Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations v. Glaser" 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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In these consolidated cases, petitioners challenged the EPA's final 2018 Rule, which established overall targets for the fuel market and imposed individual compliance obligations on fuel refineries and importers. The DC Circuit held that all these challenges lacked merit, except for one: that the EPA violated its obligations under the Endangered Species Act by failing to determine whether the 2018 Rule may affect endangered species or critical habitat. Therefore, the court granted the petition for review filed by the Gulf Restoration Network and Sierra Club and remanded without vacatur for the EPA to comply with the Act. The court denied all other petitions for review. View "American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers v. EPA" on Justia Law

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The Department of Water Resources (DWR) applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or Commission) to extend its federal license to operate Oroville Dam and its facilities as a hydroelectric dam, the “Oroville Facilities Project.” A Settlement Agreement (SA)) by which the affected parties agreed to conditions for extending the license. “ DWR filed a programmatic (informational) Environmental Impact Report (EIR) as the lead agency in support of the application pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Plaintiffs challenged the sufficiency of the EIR, and the failure to consider the import of climate change, in the state courts and sought to enjoin the issuance of an extended license until their environmental claims were reviewed. The trial court denied the petition on grounds the environmental claims were speculative. In an earlier opinion the Court of Appeal held that the authority to review the EIR was preempted by the Federal Power Act (FPA), that the superior court lacked subject matter jurisdiction of the matter, and ordered that the case be dismissed. Plaintiffs petitioned for review in the Supreme Court, review was granted, and the matter was transferred back to the Court of Appeal with directions to reconsider the case in light of Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority, 3 Cal.5th 677 (2017). The Court determined the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA), at issue in Eel River, was materially distinguishable from the FPA. Therefore, the Court concluded Eel River did not apply in this case. The plaintiffs could not challenge the environmental sufficiency of the program because review of that program lied with FERC and they did not seek review as required by 18 Code of Federal Regulations part 4.34(i)(6)(vii) (2003). The plaintiffs could not challenge the environmental predicate to the Certificate contained in the CEQA document because that was subject to review by FERC. The plaintiffs could not challenge the Certificate because it did not exist when this action was filed, and they could not challenge the physical changes made by the SWRCB in the Certificate until they were implemented. For these reasons the parties did not tender a federal issue over which the Court of Appeal had state CEQA jurisdiction. Accordingly, it dismissed the appeal with directions to the trial court to vacate its judgment and dismiss the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. View "County of Butte v. Dept. of Water Resources" on Justia Law

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Four appeals arose from a consolidated subcase that was a part of the broader Coeur d’Alene-Spokane River Basin Adjudication (CSRBA). The United States Department of the Interior (the United States), as trustee for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe (the Tribe), filed 353 claims in Idaho state court seeking judicial recognition of federal reserved water rights to fulfill the purposes of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Reservation (the Reservation). The Tribe joined the litigation. The State of Idaho (the State) and others objected to claims asserted by the United States and the Tribe. The district court bifurcated the proceedings to decide only the entitlement to water at this stage, with the quantification stage to follow. After cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court allowed certain claims to proceed and disallowed others. The district court specifically allowed reserved water rights for agriculture, fishing and hunting, and domestic purposes. The district court allowed reserved water rights for instream flows within the Reservation, but disallowed those for instream flows outside the Reservation. The district court determined priority dates for the various claims it found should proceed to quantification, holding generally the Tribe was entitled to a date-of-reservation priority date for the claims for consumptive uses, and a time immemorial priority date for nonconsumptive uses. However, in regard to lands homesteaded on the Reservation by non-Indians that had since been reacquired by the Tribe, the district court ruled the Tribe was entitled to a priority date of a perfected state water right, or if none had been perfected or it had been lost due to nonuse, the Tribe’s priority date would be the date-of-reacquisition. The Idaho Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Supreme Court determined the district court improperly applied the controlling case law's rule of "primary-secondary" distinction and instead should have allowed aboriginal purposes of plant gathering and cultural uses under the homeland purpose theory. Furthermore, the Court determined the priority date associated with nonconsumptive water rights was time immemorial. The Court affirmed the remainder of the district court’s decisions and remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. Idaho" on Justia Law

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When a toxic disaster hits, claimants could seek relief in the form of assistance from the New Jersey Spill Fund by following promulgated claims procedures. In order to resolve disputes over denied Fund monies quickly and fairly, the Fund uses arbitrators and flexible procedures to allow claimants the opportunity to demonstrate that the denial constituted arbitrary and capricious action. Petitioner, US Masters Residential Property (USA) Fund, submitted a claim for Spill Fund monies for its multi-lot property located in Bayonne that was affected by storm floodwaters, which allegedly carried petroleum-based toxins. Neighboring properties also affected by the storm’s toxin-laden floodwaters were afforded Spill Fund relief. Following some back and forth with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), petitioner’s claim was denied. After petitioner filed an appeal, two years elapsed between the request for arbitration and the commencement of the arbitration proceeding. The results of the arbitration ended in favor of the Spill Fund, and payment remained denied. The New Jersey Supreme Court expressed "concerns" about the arbitration. "Although we are mindful of the deferential standard of review, flaws in the substantive reasoning of the arbitration decision as well as procedural fairness considerations undermine confidence in the outcome of this arbitration enough to persuade us, in the interest of fairness, to require that a new arbitration be conducted. Accordingly, we reverse and remand this claim for a new proceeding." View "US Masters Residential Property (USA) Fund v. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs R.L. Vallee, Inc. (Vallee) and Timberlake Associates, LLP (Timberlake) appealed various aspects of three decisions that culminated in the environmental division granting the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) Act 250 and stormwater discharge permits for a highway project involving the reconfiguration of an interstate exit. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the environmental division erred in dismissing Vallee’s questions regarding Criterion 1 of Act 250; in all other respects, the Court affirmed. Accordingly,issuance of the stormwater permit was upheld, issuance of the Act 250 permit was reversed, and the matter remanded for the environmental division to consider Vallee’s questions concerning Criterion 1. View "In re Diverging Diamond Interchange SW Permit, Diverging Diamond Interchange A250" on Justia Law