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

Articles Posted in Environmental Law

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In 1988, defendant United States Forest Service designated a 2,380 acre portion of the Manti-La Sal National Forest’s highest elevations, namely the summits and ridges of Mt. Peale, Mt. Mellenthin, and Mt. Tukuhnikivatz, as the Mt. Peale Research Natural Area (RNA). In June 2013, the Utah Wildlife Board approved UDWR’s “Utah Mountain Goat Statewide Management Plan.” Among other things, UDWR’s plan anticipated the release of a target population of 200 mountain goats into the La Sal Mountains adjacent to the Manti-La Sal National Forest for the express purposes of hunting and viewing. The FS, concerned the goats might adversely affect the habitat of the higher alpine regions of the national forest, asked the Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources (UWDR) to delay implementation of its plan while the FS in coordination with UDWR studied the plan’s expected impact on the national forest and the RNA. UDWR rejected the FS’s request for an outright delay, and indicated it would begin implementing its plan by transplanting a small number of goats into the mountains, but would work cooperatively with the FS to assess impacts and develop a strategy to prevent overutilization of the habitat. In September 2013, UDWR released twenty mountain goats on State lands adjacent to the Manti-La Sal National Forest. A year later, UDWR released an additional fifteen mountain goats on the same State lands. The goats moved into the La Sal Mountains’ higher elevations, wallowing and foraging within the national forest and more particularly within the Mt. Peale RNA. Plaintiff Grand Canyon Trust demanded the FS: (1) prohibit UDWR from introducing additional mountain goats onto State lands adjacent to the national forest; (2) regulate UDWR’s occupancy and use of the national forest by requiring it to obtain special use authorization before releasing additional mountain goats on State lands; and (3) immediately remove the mountain goats already in the national forest. Determining UDWR did not release the goats on federal lands, the FS elected to "wait and see" before initiating any action against UDWR, and to "gather and evaluate data sufficient to determine whether action was warranted." GCT thereafter filed for declaratory and injunctive relief. The Tenth Circuit upheld the district court's dismissal of GCT's complaint, concurring with the trial court that GCT "cleverly amalgamated federal law in an attempt to find some pathway to judicial review." The Tenth Circuit concluded GCT failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, and affirmed dismissal of the complaint. View "Utah Native Plant Society v. U.S. Forest Service" on Justia Law

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The issue presented for the Tenth Circuit's review centered on whether the Bureau of Land Management violated the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in granting more than 300 applications for permits to drill horizontal, multi-stage hydraulically fracked wells in the Mancos Shale area of the San Juan Basin in northeastern New Mexico. Appellants, four environmental advocacy groups) sued the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Secretary of the BLM, alleging that the BLM authorized the drilling without fully considering its indirect and cumulative impacts on the environment or on historic properties. The district court denied Appellants a preliminary injunction, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed that decision in 2016. After merits briefing, the district court concluded that the BLM had not violated either NHPA or NEPA and dismissed Appellants’ claims with prejudice. Appellants appealed, and this time, the Tenth Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. The Tenth Circuit determined that, as to five EAs, Appellants have demonstrated that the BLM needed to, but did not, consider the cumulative impacts of water resources associated with 3,960 reasonably foreseeable horizontal Mancos Shale wells. The BLM’s issuance of FONSIs and approval of APDs associated with these EAs was therefore arbitrary and capricious and violated NEPA. The matter was remanded for the district court to vacate the FONSIs and APDs associated with those five environmental analyses; the Tenth Circuit affirmed as to all other issues. View "Dine Citizens v. Bernhardt" on Justia Law

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WildEarth Guardians appealed after the United States Forest Service published a 2014 environmental assessment (“EA”) to the Tennessee Creek Project, and subsequently issued a Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact. The Service undertook the project for a stated purpose of protecting from insects, disease, fire, improvement of wildlife habitat and to maintain watershed conditions. One of the conclusions in the EA determined none of these actions would adversely impact the Canadian lynx. WildEarth Guardians alleged the EA failed to adequately assess the Project’s effects on lynx and by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS). The district court upheld the agency action. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the Agency’s actions, finding the Service satisfied its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) obligations when it reasonably concluded in its EA that under a worst-case scenario the lynx would not be adversely affected by the Project and reasonably concluded that an EIS was not necessary. View "WildEarth Guardians v. Conner" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Audubon Society of Greater Denver sought review of the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of a project to store more water in the Chatfield Reservoir in Colorado. Audubon argued the Corps’ review and approval of the project failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act. The district court denied the petition for review after concluding that the Corps’ decision was not arbitrary or capricious. Audubon also moved to supplement the administrative record. The district court denied the motion because it found that the administrative record sufficiently informed the Corps’ analysis. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court. View "Audubon Society v. US Army Corps of Engineers" on Justia Law

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The issue at the center of this decades-long water rights case involved the Pojoaque Basin of New Mexico. A settlement was reached among many of the parties involved. The district court overruled the objectors and entered a final judgment. The objecting parties appealed, arguing the settlement was contrary to law because it altered the state-law priority system, and the New Mexico Attorney General could not agree to enforce the settlement without the state legislature's approval. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals determined, as provided in the agreement, the State Engineer promulgated rules for the administration of water rights in the Basin. Those rules explicitly provided that non-settling parties “have the same rights and benefits that would be available without the settlement agreement” and that those rights “shall only be curtailed . . . to the extent such curtailment would occur without the settlement agreement.” However, though the settlement preserved their rights, it did not confer the objector-appellants standing to challenge it. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded the case for dismissal of the objections for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. View "New Mexico v. Aamodt" on Justia Law

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Robert Ukeiley owned property in Lamar, Colorado and suffered from a lung condition worsened by airborne particulates. Lamar experiences many windy days, and the resulting dust storms generate airborne particulate pollution that affects its residents. Due to this pollution, between the early 1990s and 2005 the Environmental Protection Agency designated Lamar as a nonattainment area under the Clean Air Act. To achieve attainment, Lamar needed to comply with National Ambient Air Quality Standards (Standards) promulgated by the EPA. The Standards impose a variety of regulatory requirements designed to reduce the exposure of the public to dangerous levels of airborne pollutants. To achieve compliance with the Standards, Colorado developed a state implementation plan in 1994. In 2002, Colorado requested the EPA to redesignate the Lamar area as an attainment area and submitted a ten-year maintenance plan to demonstrate expected compliance through 2015. The EPA approved the plan in 2005 and redesignated Lamar as an attainment area. In 2013, as part of its requirement for achieving attainment, Colorado submitted its second proposed ten-year maintenance plan for the Lamar area. Along with its submission, Colorado asked the EPA to exclude a number of days in which Lamar’s airborne pollutants exceeded the Standards. The EPA concurred on the request for some of the days and approved the plan in 2016. Ukeiley challenged that 2016 approval in his petition for review by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. He contended the EPA abused its discretion by granting Colorado’s request to exclude certain instances in which airborne dust exceeded the Standards. The Tenth Circuit concluded the EPA did not err in approving Colorado’s maintenance plan, holding the EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act and its application of that interpretation were correct. Furthermore, the Court held the EPA’s regulations, related guidance, and the extensive administrative record all supported the EPA’s decision. Therefore, the Court denied Ukeiley’s petition for review. View "Ukeiley v. Env. Protection Agy." on Justia Law

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This appeal arose out of a private enforcement action under Section 505 of the Clean Water Act (CWA), 33 U.S.C. 1365. Defendant-Appellant Ozark Materials River Rock, LLC, appealed a district court’s order approving Plaintiff-Appellee David Benham’s proposed restoration plan of unlawfully filled wetlands in Saline Creek. Ozark was a sand and gravel mining company that operated on property adjacent to Saline Creek in Oklahoma. Benham recreates in Saline Creek and claimed Ozark’s operations degraded his ability to do so. In March 2011, Benham served Ozark with a notice letter pursuant to Section 505, informing the company that it was violating Section 404 of the CWA, 33 U.S.C. 1344. Section 404 required a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to discharge dredge or fill material into navigable waters if the activity disturbed more than one-half acre of wetland, and Ozark did not have a Section 404 permit. The Army Corps of Engineers had inspected Ozark’s operations in 2010 (again in 2012 and 2013) by driving through the property, but it found no CWA violations. Nevertheless, after receiving Benham’s notice, Ozark hired an environmental consulting firm to perform a Section 404 impact analysis of Ozark’s Saline Creek operations. By June 1, 2011, Ozark had not addressed the CWA violations that Benham alleged in his notice, so he filed the underlying citizen suit, as authorized by Section 505. The district court held a bench trial and found that Ozark’s construction of a roadway in Saline Creek and the filling of its surrounding wetlands without a permit constitute a continuing violation of the CWA. The district court imposed a civil penalty of $35,000 and ordered briefing on a restoration plan for the unlawfully filled wetlands. On June 1, 2017, the district court issued an order adopting (substantially all of) Benham’s proposed restoration plan; one element of the plan created a conservation easement for the restoration site. Ozark raised several issues on appeal challenging the district court’s order and underlying findings of fact and conclusions of law. But finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court. View "Benham v. Ozark Materials River Rock" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-Appellee Western Energy Alliance (“WEA”) filed this lawsuit against two Defendants: the Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior, and the Bureau of Land Management (the “BLM”). WEA alleged that the BLM violated the Mineral Leasing Act, 30 U.S.C. secs. 181-287 (the “MLA”), by holding too few oil and gas lease sales. Several environmental advocacy groups moved to intervene in the suit: The Wilderness Society, Wyoming Outdoor Council, Southern Utah Wilderness Society, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Great Old Broads For Wilderness, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, Center For Biological Diversity, and Earthworks (collectively, the “conservation groups”). The district court denied the motion to intervene. The court concluded that the conservation groups had failed to show that the pending litigation has the potential to harm their environmental interests, or that the presently named parties could not adequately represent their interests. The conservation groups filed this interlocutory appeal over the denial of their motion to intervene. After review, the Tenth Circuit concluded the conservation groups could intervene in the lawsuit as a matter of right, and reversed the district court’s previous denial. View "Western Energy Alliance v. Zinke" on Justia Law

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In cases consolidated for review, the issue presented for the Tenth Circuit centered on whether the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acted beyond its statutory authority when it promulgated a regulation, 43 C.F.R. sec. 3162.3-3 (2015), governing hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on lands owned or held in trust by the United States. The district court invalidated this regulation as exceeding the BLM’s statutory authority. While these appeals were pending, a new President of the United States was elected, and shortly thereafter, at the President’s direction, the BLM began the process of rescinding the Fracking Regulation. Given these changed and changing circumstances, the Tenth Circuit concluded these appeals were unripe for review. As a result, the Court dismissed these appeals and remanded with directions to vacate the district court’s opinion and dismiss the action without prejudice. View "Wyoming v. Zinke" on Justia Law

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This case presented a question of whether a large-scale excavation project constituted “mining” under the pertinent federal regulations that address mineral development on Indian land. When an entity engages in “mining” of minerals owned by the Osage Nation, a federally approved lease must be obtained from the tribe. The Osage Mineral Council (OMC), acting on behalf of the Osage Nation, appealed the award of summary judgment to Defendant Osage Wind, LLC (Osage Wind), arguing that Osage Wind engaged in “mining” without procuring a federally approved mineral lease. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has defined “mining” as the “science, technique, and business of mineral development[.]” The Tenth Circuit held the term “mineral development” had a broad meaning, including commercial mineral extractions and offsite relocations, but also encompass action upon the extracted minerals for the purpose of exploiting the minerals themselves on site. The Court held Osage Wind’s extraction, sorting, crushing, and use of minerals as part of its excavation work constituted “mineral development,” thereby requiring a federally approved lease which Osage Wind failed to obtain. Accordingly, the Court reversed the award of summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. Osage Wind" on Justia Law