Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

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In this complaint alleging violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA), 33 U.S.C. 1251 et seq., and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCA), 42 U.S.C. 6901 et seq., the First Circuit vacated the order of the district court granting a motion to stay the proceedings under the so-called doctrine of primary jurisdiction, holding that the district court improperly stayed the case.Conservation Law Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, brought this suit against ExxonMobil Corporation, ExxonMobil Oil Corporation, and ExxonMobil Pipeline Company (collectively, ExxonMobil), alleging unlawful violations at ExxonMobil's petroleum storage and distribution terminal in Everett, Massachusetts. After the district court denied ExxonMobil's motion to dismiss, ExxonMobil moved to stay the case under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction until the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a decision on ExxonMobil's pending permit renewal application for the Everett terminal. The First Circuit vacated the stay order, holding that the district court erred in granting a stay under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction until EPA issues a new permit for ExxonMobil's Everett terminal. View "Conservation Law Foundation v. ExxonMobil Corp." on Justia Law

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The First Circuit vacated the judgment of the district court dismissing this action against the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) under the citizen enforcement provision of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), 33 U.S.C. 1365(a), holding that Plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to survive a motion to dismiss.In his complaint, Plaintiff claimed that PRASA was violated the CWA by discharging raw sewage that flowed into a creek near her home in San Juan. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, finding that a citizen suit was barred because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was prosecuting a case it previously filed against PRASA addressing the same violations. The First Circuit vacated the order, holding (1) the district court failed to follow the correct standard for evaluating a motion to dismiss; and (2) Plaintiff's complaint stated a plausible claim that the EPA was not diligently persecuting certain violations. View "Cebollero-Bertran v. Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Authority" on Justia Law

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On March 21, 2017, following a public hearing, East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) committed to accept Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) funding for “[e]nvironmental [r]estoration and [m]aintenance at Briones Regional Park and LafayetteMoraga Regional Trail.” A staff report explained that PG&E had determined that 245 trees near the gas transmission pipeline on EBRPD property needed to be removed for safety reasons, would pay $1,000 for each tree removed, and would provide replacement trees for 31 District-owned trees within the City of Lafayette, per the City’s ordinance. PG&E would also provide $10,000 for two years of maintenance. Days later EBRPD and PG&E signed an agreement. On June 27, EBRPD filed a Notice of Exemption under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Pub. Res. Code, 2100. On July 31, opponents and EBRPD entered into an agreement to “toll all applicable statutes of limitations for 60 days” PG&E did not consent.On September 29, opponents sued. The court of appeal affirmed the dismissal of the complaint. The CEQA claim is barred by the 180-day limitation period. PG&E, a necessary and indispensable party to that claim, did not consent to tolling. The non-CEQA claims relating to the city and ABRPD ordinances cannot be amended to allege claims for which relief can be granted. Constitutional due process rights of notice and a hearing did not attach to EBRPD’s quasi-legislative acts. View "Save Lafayette Trees v. East Bay Regional Park District" on Justia Law

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Arising under the 2006 version of La. R.S. 30:29 (referred to as Act 312), this oilfield remediation case involved the Vermilion Parish School Board (“VPSB”), individually and on behalf of the State of Louisiana, as petitioner, and Union Oil Company of California, Union Exploration Partners (collectively, “UNOCAL”), Chevron U.S.A., Inc., Chevron Midcontinent LP, and Carrollton Resources, LLC as defendants. Although the exact date of VPSB’s knowledge of contamination to the land was disputed, it was clear that VPSB became aware of such sometime in 2003 or 2004. In September 2004, VPSB filed a petition, urging causes of action for negligence, strict liability, unjust enrichment, trespass, breach of contract, and violations of Louisiana environmental laws. VPSB sought damages to cover the cost of evaluating and remediating the alleged damage and contamination to the property. It also sought damages for diminution of the property value, mental anguish, inconvenience, punitive damages, and stigma damages. UNOCAL sought reversal of the lower courts’ finding that VPSB’s strict liability claim was not prescribed. UNOCAL also contested the court of appeal’s ruling that the jury verdict was inconsistent and its remand for a new trial. Finding UNOCAL failed to prove that VPSB’s strict liability cause of action was factually prescribed, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeal’s ruling on prescription, but on alternative grounds. Finding the jury was improperly allowed to decide issues reserved solely for the trial court, and cognizant the extraneous instructions and verdict interrogatories permeated the jury’s consideration of the verdict as a whole, the Supreme Court vacated the trial court’s judgment and affirmed the court of appeal’s remand for new trial. View "Louisiana v. Louisiana Land & Exploration Co. et al." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals concluding that the federal Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. 7401 et seq., did not preempt the State's in-use motor vehicle emission control system tampering claims against Volkswagen, holding that the Clean Air Act did not preempt Ohio law and preclude an anti-tampering claim under Ohio's Air Pollution Control Act, Ohio Rev. Code 3704.01 et seq.After the United States Environmental Protection Agency discovered Volkswagen's scheme to enable its vehicles to perform better than they otherwise would have on federal emissions tests, the State of Ohio sued Volkswagen for its vehicle-emissions tampering, alleging that Volkswagen's conduct violated Ohio's Air Pollution Control Act. The trial court granted Volkswagen's motion to dismiss, concluding that Ohio's anti-tampering statute was preempted by the federal Clean Air Act. The court of appeals reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the federal Clean Air Act neither expressly nor impliedly preempts section 3704.16(C)(3) or precludes an anti-tampering claim under the state Air Pollution Control Act for a manufacturer's post-sale tampering with a vehicle's emissions-control system. View "State ex rel. Yost v. Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaf" on Justia Law

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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

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A prospective farmer sought loans for a poultry farm to be built in Caroline County, Maryland. The lender applied for a Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan guarantee. Regulations interpreting the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. 4321, then required FSA to conduct an environmental assessment. FSA consulted with local, state, and federal agencies; published drafts of an environmental assessment for public comment; and considered a private environmental consulting firm's recommendations. FSA issued a “finding of no significant impact” rather than a more detailed environmental impact statement. FSA provided the loan guarantee. The farm has been operating since 2016 and houses 192,000 birds. Two years after the loan was approved, FWW, an environmental group, filed suit, alleging that the failure to prepare an environmental impact statement violated NEPA, purportedly injuring thousands of FWW members, including one who lived adjoining the farm and was subjected to loud noises, bright lights, foul odors, and flies. Another FWW member, who fishes nearby, asserted concerns about pollution and aesthetic and recreational impacts. The district court granted FSA summary judgment on the merits.The D.C. Circuit vacated and remanded for dismissal. FWW lacks standing; it failed to establish that its claims are redressable by favorable judicial action. It is not “likely, as opposed to merely speculative,” that vacatur of the loan guarantee would redress its members’ alleged injuries. The loan guarantee might have been a “substantial contributing factor” to the farm’s construction, but a new status quo existed when FWW filed suit. View "Food & Water Watch v. United States Department of Agriculture" on Justia Law

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Following two fires at its steel plant, U.S. Steel polluted the air. Because that pollution violated its Clean Air Act permits and regulations, it reported the incidents to the local officials who enforce that Act, the Allegheny County Health Department. The Clean Air Council, an environmental watchdog, sued, arguing that under CERCLA, U.S. Steel should have reported the pollution to the federal government too. CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act) exempts from reporting any “federally permitted” emissions, 42 U.S.C. 9603, including emissions “subject to” certain Clean Air Act permits and regulations. The Council argued that “subject to” means “obedient to” so that an emission cannot be “subject to” a permit or regulation that it violates.The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. In context, “subject to” means “governed or affected by.” Since U.S. Steel’s emissions were governed by a Clean Air Act permit, that means they were “federally permitted” under CERCLA and exempt from federal reporting. View "Clean Air Council v. United States Steel Corp." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the order of the district court denying Defendants' motion to dismiss this petition seeking to force Defendants to enact legislation that will compel Iowa farmers to take action that will significantly reduce levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Raccoon River, holding that the motion to dismiss should have been granted.Plaintiffs - two social justice organizations - brought this case against Defendants - the State, four state agencies, and multiple state officials - seeking declaratory relief and to compel the State to adopt a "Raccoon River remedial plan with mandatory agricultural water pollution controls." Defendants moved to dismiss the petition based on lack of standing, nonjusticiability, and failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The district court denied the motion. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) the petition's attenuated causation theory was insufficient to establish that Plaintiffs' members suffered a concrete injury at the hands of Defendants that a favorable court decision was likely to redress; and (2) Plaintiffs' effort to repurpose the public trust doctrine to solve a complex environmental problem presented a nonjusticiable political question. View "Iowa Citizens For Community Improvement v. State" on Justia Law

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Petitioner challenged the EPA's 2019 withdrawal of its 2014 proposed determination to exercise its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to restrict the ability of miners to operate in part of the Bristol Bay watershed in southwestern Alaska. The district court held that the EPA's decision was unreviewable pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 701(a)(2) and Heckler v. Chaney, 470 U.S. 821 (1985). The district court determined that neither the Clean Water Act nor the EPA's regulations include a meaningful legal standard governing the EPA's decision.Reviewing de novo, the panel held that (a) the Clean Water Act contains no meaningful legal standard in its broad grant of discretion to the EPA but that (b) the EPA's regulations do contain a meaningful legal standard. In particular, 40 C.F.R. 231.5(a) allows the EPA to withdraw a proposed determination only when an "unacceptable adverse effect" on specified resources is not "likely." Accordingly, the panel affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court's dismissal. The panel remanded for further proceedings to determine whether the EPA's withdrawal was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or contrary to law. View "Trout Unlimited v. Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp." on Justia Law