Justia U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Environmental Law

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Plaintiff-Appellant Asarco, LLC appeals the entry of summary judgment against it in its contribution action against Noranda Mining, Inc., under Section 113(f) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act ("CERCLA"). The district court held that Asarco was judicially estopped from pursuing its claim because of representations it made to a bankruptcy court concerning its settlement agreement with the EPA for the site in question. After review, the Tenth Circuit reversed, finding that the district court abused its discretion in applying judicial estoppel: "The overall context of the CERCLA settlement approved by the bankruptcy court makes it apparent that Asarco's positions are not clearly inconsistent, that to allow Asarco to pursue its claim would not create the perception that a court was misled, and that Asarco would not necessarily gain an unfair advantage by being allowed to pursue its claim now." View "Asarco v. Noranda Mining" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs appealed the district court’s denial of their request for a preliminary injunction to prevent the drilling of certain oil and gas wells in the Mancos Shale formation of the San Juan Basin in New Mexico. The district court concluded that Plaintiffs had failed to satisfy three of the four elements required to obtain a preliminary injunction: (1) Plaintiffs had not demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their claims; (2) the balance of harms weighed against Plaintiffs; and (3) Plaintiffs failed to show that the public interest favored an injunction. Finding no reversible error in the district court's denial, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Dine Citizens v. Jewell" on Justia Law

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Petitioners American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, The Cloud Foundation, Return to Freedom, Carol Walker, and Kimerlee Curyl filed this action against Sally Jewell, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, and Neil Kornze, the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), seeking review of BLM’s decision to remove wild horses in certain areas of public land located in southwestern Wyoming within an area known as the “Checkerboard.” The Checkerboard was comprised of over one million acres of generally high desert land, and “derives its name from the pattern of alternating sections of private and public land which it comprises.” Under a 2013 consent decree, BLM agreed to remove all wild horses located on private lands in the Checkerboard. BLM maintained that “due to the unique pattern of land ownership” within the Checkerboard, “and as recognized in the Consent Decree, it is practically infeasible for the BLM to meet its obligations under Section 4 of the [Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act ("the Act")] while removing wild horses solely from the private lands sections of the [C]heckerboard.” Petitioners alleged, in pertinent part, that the removal violated the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA). The district court rejected these claims. Petitioners appealed. The Tenth Circuit reversed, finding it was "improper" for BLM to construe the unambiguous terms “privately owned land” and “private lands,” as used in Section 4 of the Act, to include the public land sections of the Checkerboard. And, in turn, with respect to the FLMPA claims, it was improper for BLM to conduct what it described as a Section 4 gather on the public land sections of the Checkerboard. "By doing so, BLM violated the duties that Section 3 clearly imposes on it with respect to wild horses found on the public land sections of the Checkerboard." The Court reversed the district court and remanded this case for further proceedings. View "American Wild Horse v. Jewell" on Justia Law

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Petitioner State of Wyoming (the State) filed suit against the federal Department of the Interior, the Secretary of the Department, and the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seeking judicial review of what the State claimed was their failure to comply with non-discretionary obligations imposed upon them by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. Specifically, the State alleged that respondents were statutorily obligated, but had failed, to properly manage the overpopulation of wild horses on seven areas of public land in Wyoming. Respondents moved to dismiss the petition for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The district court granted respondents’ motion and dismissed the action. The State appealed. Of particular relevance here, subsection (b) of Section 3 of the Act outlined the Secretary’s duties with respect to inventorying wild horses and dealing with overpopulation issues. The State argued that the subsection served as grounds for the Secretary to act. The Tenth Circuit found that subsection (b)(1)’s use of the phrase “whether action should be taken to remove excess animals” afforded the BLM with discretion to decide whether or not to remove excess animals. "[I]t is indisputable that only the first of these statutory requirements has been met, i.e., the determination of an overpopulation in each of the seven HMAs. Importantly, the second requirement has not been satisfied because the BLM has not determined that action is necessary to remove the excess animals. Consequently, the State cannot establish that the BLM has 'unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed' action that it was required to take under Section 3 of the Act, and thus has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under the APA." View "State of Wyoming v. Dept. of the Interior" on Justia Law

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Sierra Club brought a citizen suit seeking civil penalties against Oklahoma Gas and Electric Company “(OG&E)” for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act. Sierra Club claimed that in March and April 2008, OG&E, the owner and operator of a coal-fired power plant in Muskogee, modified a boiler at the plant without first obtaining an emission-regulating permit as required under the Act. Because Sierra Club filed its action more than five years after construction began on the plant, the district court dismissed its claim under Rule 12(b)(6) on statute of limitations grounds. The court also dismissed Sierra Club’s claims for declaratory and injunctive relief because these remedies were predicated on the unavailable claim for civil penalties. Finding no error in the district court's conclusions, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Sierra Club v. Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co." on Justia Law

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The water source at the heart of this general stream adjudication was the Nambe-Pojoaque-Tesuque Basin. The State of New Mexico was engaged in individual adjudications with parties who held permits to divert the Basin’s underground water through the use of domestic water wells. Elisa Trujillo held one such domestic well permit. During her individual adjudication, she and the State disputed her water rights. In 2010, the special master granted summary judgment in favor of the State. In 2015, the district court entered an order that adjudicated Trujillo’s water rights based on the special master’s 2010 summary judgment order. Trujillo identified only the 2015 order in her notice of appeal, which was an interlocutory order because the district court had not yet entered a final decision in the general stream adjudication. She presented no developed argument challenging the special master’s summary judgment order that served as a basis for the 2015 order. Instead, the Tenth Circuit found that she spent much of her brief challenging two orders denying her motions to quash a 1983 injunction that placed limits on the State’s issuance of domestic well permits. Finding no reason to overturn the district court's judgment, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Trujillo's adjudication. View "New Mexico v. Trujillo" on Justia Law

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Dennis Rodebaugh ran D&S Guide and Outfitters. Rodebaugh took mostly out-of-state clients on elk and deer hunts in the White River National Forest near Meeker, where they waited in tree stands for elk and deer to approach before shooting them. To attract the elk and deer, Rodebaugh spread salt around the base of the tree stands. Colorado law prohibited “baiting.” And selling wildlife taken in violation of state law is a federal crime under the Lacey Act. After an extensive investigation, Rodebaugh was indicted for several Lacey Act violations. A jury found him guilty on six counts. The district court sentenced him to 41 months in prison and three years of supervised release. He appealed, raising various trial and sentencing issues. Upon review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the conviction and prison sentence, rejecting Rodebaugh’s challenges to the district court’s denial of a motion to suppress, the validity of the underlying Colorado regulations, the sufficiency of the evidence to support the conviction on each count, and the application of enhancements to the base offense level under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. View "United States v. Rodebaugh" on Justia Law

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In 1989, FBI agents raided the nuclear weapons production facility known as Rocky Flats, first operated by Dow Chemical Company, then Rockwell International Corporation. The agents discovered that plant workers had been mishandling radioactive waste for years. The waste found its way into the nearby soil and groundwater.The plant's neighbors followed the government's criminal action with a civil suit, citing the federal Price-Anderson Act and state nuisance law as grounds for relief. A jury found for plaintiffs, and the district court approved roughly $177 million in compensatory damages and $200 million in punitive damages, as well as $549 million in prejudgment interest. Defendants appealed, arguing that the district court had failed to instruct the jury properly about the terms of the Price-Anderson Act. Dow and Rockwell made a "curious tactical decision," arguing that the district court's jury instructions about what constituted a nuclear incident were too permissive. The Tenth Circuit agreed that the district court's jury instructions about what did and did not qualify as a nuclear incident were too permissive. On this basis, it vacated the district court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings in light of the Act's correct construction. Plaintiffs appealed, renouncing the benefits the Act provided to both parties. Plaintiffs accepted the premise that they could not prove a nuclear incident as the term was interpreted by the Tenth Circuit. Instead, plaintiffs relied on their state law tort claim. Defendants countered with the argument that the Act precluded plaintiffs' state law claim. Furthermore, defendants argued that the Tenth Circuit's mandate in the first appeal of this case barred plaintiffs from relief on their state law nuisance verdict. The district court ruled in favor of defendants, and again this case came before the Tenth Circuit on appeal. "In two separate appeals spanning many years the defendants have identified no lawful impediment to the entry of a state law nuisance judgment on the existing verdict. They have shown no preemption by federal law, no error in the state law nuisance instructions, no mandate language specifically precluding this course. No other error of any kind is even now alleged." The Tenth Circuit vacated the district court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Cook v. Rockwell International" on Justia Law

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This case involves the authority of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue nationwide permits under section 404(e) of the Clean Water Act. These permits authorized activities involving discharge of dredged or fill material in U.S. waters and wetlands. TransCanada Corporation proposed to rely on the nationwide permit to build an oil pipeline, the Gulf Coast Pipeline, running approximately 485 miles and cross over 2,000 waterways. The Corps issued letters verifying that Nationwide Permit 12 would cover the proposed construction. Shortly thereafter, TransCanada began constructing the pipeline, which was completed. Three environmental groups (Sierra Club, Inc.; Clean Energy Future Oklahoma; and East Texas Sub Regional Planning Commission) challenged the validity of the nationwide permit and verification letters. The district court rejected these challenges and entered judgment for the defendants. After review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the entry of judgment in favor of the defendants. View "Sierra Club v. Bostick" on Justia Law

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conveyed to a strip of land to a consortium of local governments a strip of land for the construction of a parkway. The decision was challenged on various environmental grounds by several parties, including appellants WildEarth Guardians, Rocky Mountain Wild, the Town of Superior, and the City of Golden. The district court affirmed the Service’s actions, and Appellants appealed to the Tenth Circuit. Appellants asserted that the Service violated the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. View "WildEarth Guardians v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife" on Justia Law