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

Articles Posted in Environmental Law
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Citizen groups challenged the Bureau of Land Management’s (“BLM”) environmental assessments (“EAs”) and environmental assessment addendum analyzing the environmental impact of 370 applications for permits to drill (“APDs”) for oil and gas in the Mancos Shale and Gallup Sandstone formations in the San Juan Basin of New Mexico. These challenges came after a separate but related case in which the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded to the district court with instructions to vacate five EAs analyzing the impacts of APDs in the area because BLM had failed to consider the cumulative environmental impacts as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). BLM prepared an EA Addendum to remedy the defects in those five EAs, as well as potential defects in eighty-one other EAs that also supported approvals of APDs in the area. Citizen Groups argued these eighty-one EAs and the EA Addendum violated NEPA because BLM: (1) improperly predetermined the outcome of the EA Addendum; and (2) failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of the APD approvals related to greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions, water resources, and air quality. BLM disagreed, contending the challenges to some of the APDs were not justiciable because the APDs had not yet been approved. The district court affirmed the agency action, determining: (1) Citizen Groups’ claims based on APD’s that had not been approved were not ripe for judicial review; (2) BLM did not unlawfully predetermine the outcome of the EA Addendum; and (3) BLM took a hard look at the environmental impacts of the APD approvals. The Tenth Circuit agreed with BLM and the district court that the unapproved APDs were not ripe and accordingly, limited its review to the APDs that had been approved. Turning to Citizen Groups’ two primary arguments on the merits, the appellate court held: (1) BLM did not improperly predetermine the outcome of the EA Addendum, but, even considering that addendum; (2) BLM’s analysis was arbitrary and capricious because it failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts from GHG emissions and hazardous air pollutant emissions. However, the Court concluded BLM’s analysis of the cumulative impacts to water resources was sufficient under NEPA. View "Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, et al. v. Haaland, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Citizens for Constitutional Integrity and Southwest Advocates, Inc. appealed the rejection of their challenges to the constitutionality of the Congressional Review Act (CRA), and Senate Rule XXII, the so-called Cloture Rule, which required the votes of three-fifths of the Senate to halt debate. The Stream Protection Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. 93,066 (Dec. 20, 2016), heightened the requirements for regulatory approval of mining-permit applications. The Rule was promulgated by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (the Office) in the waning days of the Obama Administration. Within a month of the Stream Protection Rule taking effect on January 19, 2017, both Houses of Congress had passed a joint resolution disapproving the Rule pursuant to the CRA, and President Trump had signed the joint resolution into law. According to Plaintiffs, the repeal of the Rule enabled the approval of a 950.55-acre expansion of the King II Coal Mine (the Mine), located in La Plata County, Colorado, and owned by GCC Energy. Plaintiffs filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado against the federal government and several high-ranking Department of the Interior officials in their official capacities (collectively, Defendants) seeking: (1) a declaration that the CRA and the Cloture Rule were unconstitutional and that the Stream Protection Rule was therefore valid and enforceable; (2) vacation of the approval of the King II Mine permit modification and an injunction against expanded mining activities authorized by the modification; and (3) attorney fees. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected plaintiffs' challenges to the CRA and held that they lacked standing to challenge the Cloture Rule. View "Citizens for Constitutional, et al. v. United States, et al." on Justia Law

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For years the parties in this case litigated the propriety of a proposed development in the Wolf Creek Ski Area—which the US Forest Service managed. The proposed development was a plan for highway access known as “the Village at Wolf Creek Access Project.” Plaintiff challenged this plan because of alleged environmental risks to the surrounding national forest. The highway-access litigation continued, but relevant here was a 2018 FOIA request Plaintiff submitted asking Defendant for “all agency records regarding the proposed Village at Wolf Creek Access Project.” Plaintiff’s request caused an enormous undertaking by Defendant. The statute instructed government agencies to use reasonable efforts to produce responsive records upon request. Beyond that, FOIA also exempted nine categories of records from public disclosure. Plaintiff requested and received voluminous records under FOIA, but claimed Defendants United States Forest Service (“USFS”) and United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) abused these statutory limitations to hide information about projects that harmed the environment. The district court rejected Plaintiff’s speculative theory and found USFS’s efforts to comply with Plaintiff’s FOIA request reasonable. Finding no reversible error in that judgment, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Rocky Mountain Wild v. United States Forest Service, et al." on Justia Law

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The Tenth Circuit found the EPA’s own written decision indicated the EPA concluded that the statutory and regulatory definitions of “small refinery” did not provide specific “guidance []or limits” on how the terms “refinery” and “average aggregate daily crude oil throughput” should have been “evaluated.” Accordingly, the EPA proceeded as though it “ha[d] discretion to choose what factors and information it w[ould] consider in this evaluation.” The EPA’s decisions to deny an extension of a temporary exemption to “small refineries” from complying with the Clean Air Act’s Renewable Fuel Standard Program were reversed and remanded. "That does not mean that the EPA could not again arrive at the same conclusion. But, to do so, the EPA would need to (a) either consider and apply its own regulatory definition of “facility” to the circumstances presented here or explain why that regulatory definition is inapplicable, (b) provide clear guidance on its integration analysis, to the extent it continues to rely on that factor, and (c) omit any consideration of Suncor’s management structure or public statements unless it can demonstrate that those factors are somehow consistent with, and have a reasonable connection to, the statutory and regulatory definitions of the term “refinery.” View "Suncor Energy v. EPA" on Justia Law

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This case arises from a regulatory dispute involving a hydroelectric project. The project aimed to boost a municipality’s water supply. To obtain more water, the municipality proposed to raise a local dam and expand a nearby reservoir. But implementation of the proposal would require amendment of the municipality’s license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted a discharge permit to the municipality. A group of conservation organizations challenged the Corps’ decision by petitioning in federal district court. While the petition was pending, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission allowed amendment of the municipality’s license to raise the dam and expand the reservoir. The Commission’s amendment of the municipality’s license triggered a jurisdictional question: if federal courts of appeals had exclusive jurisdiction over petitions challenging decisions made by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, did this jurisdiction extend to challenges against the Corps’ issuance of a permit to allow discharges required for the modification of a hydroelectric project licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission? The district court answered yes, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. The conservation organizations were challenging the Corps’ issuance of a permit, not the Commission’s amendment of a license. So the statute didn’t limit jurisdiction to the court of appeals. View "Save The Colorado, et al. v. Spellmon, et al." on Justia Law

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In 2018, Garfield County, Utah sought to chip-seal a 7.5-mile portion of the Burr Trail known as the Stratton Segment. Before the County could begin its chip-sealing project, it was legally required to consult with the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) about the project’s scope and impact and obtain BLM’s approval. After doing so, Garfield County completed the project. Soon after Garfield County chip-sealed the Stratton Segment, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and other conservation groups sued BLM and the United States Department of the Interior (“DOI”). Under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), SUWA alleged that BLM had acted arbitrarily and capriciously when approving the chip-sealing project. The district court disagreed and dismissed SUWA’s claims. SUWA raised the same issue on appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Tenth Circuit held that BLM didn’t act arbitrarily and capriciously in informally determining that Garfield County had an R.S. 2477 right-of-way over the Stratton Segment. After reviewing the record, the Court disagreed with SUWA that BLM “purported to” rely on IM 2008-175 in its R.S. 2477 determination. "Instead, BLM properly relied on its authority under our caselaw to informally determine, for BLM’s own purposes, that Garfield County holds its asserted R.S. 2477 right-of-way. Thus, BLM’s decision was not arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law." View "Southern Utah Wilderness, et al. v. DOI, et al." on Justia Law

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Appellants Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, Candelas Glows/Rocky Flats Glows, Rocky Flats Right to Know, Rocky Flats Neighborhood Association, and Environmental Information Network (EIN) Inc. (collectively, “the Center”) were organizations that challenged the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s (the “Service”) 2018 decision to modify trails in the Refuge that were designated for public use. They sued the Service and others, claiming they failed to comply with various federal statutes and regulations, including the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (“NEPA”) and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (“ESA”). The Center also moved for a preliminary injunction and for the district court to supplement the administrative record and consider evidence from outside the record. The district court denied the Center’s NEPA claims, dismissed its ESA claim for lack of standing, and denied its motions. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment. View "Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center, et al. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, et al." on Justia Law

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During excavation of an inactive gold mine in southwestern Colorado, a blowout caused the release of at least three million gallons of contaminated water into Cement Creek. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) conceded its responsibility for the spill and its impacts. The State of New Mexico, the Navajo Nation, and the State of Utah separately filed civil actions, under the Clean Water Act, in New Mexico and Utah against the owners of the mine, the EPA, and the EPA’s contractors. Defendant Environmental Restoration, LLC moved to transfer the Utah case to the District of New Mexico for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings. The United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation granted the motion and centralized proceedings in New Mexico. Later, the Allen Plaintiffs (individuals who farm land or raise livestock along the Animas River or San Juan River) filed a complaint in New Mexico that included state law claims of negligence, negligence per se, and gross negligence. The district court consolidated the Allen Plaintiffs’ suit, including the state law claims, into the Multidistrict Litigation. Defendant Environmental Restoration, LLC moved to dismiss the Allen Plaintiffs’ Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that the Allen Plaintiffs did not file their complaint within Colorado’s two-year statute of limitations and therefore they failed to state a claim. The district court denied the motion to dismiss, reasoning that New Mexico’s three-year statute of limitations applied to the Allen Plaintiffs’ state-law claims. The district court certified the issue for interlocutory appeal. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court had to apply the point source state’s statute of limitations to state law claims preserved under the CWA. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Allen, Jr., et al. v. Environmental Restoration" on Justia Law

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In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service exercised its authority under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to designate nearly 14,000 acres of riparian land in New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona as critical habitat for the New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse. Two New Mexico ranching associations whose members graze cattle on the designated land challenged the Service’s critical habitat determination. The district court rejected each argument and upheld the Service’s critical habitat designation. After review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed, concluding: (1) the Service’s method for assessing the economic impacts of critical habitat designation complied with the ESA; (2) the Service adequately considered the effects of designation on the ranching association members’ water rights; and (3) the Service reasonably supported its decision not to exclude certain areas from the critical habitat designation. View "Northern New Mexico Stockman, et al. v. United States Fish & Wildlife Service, et al." on Justia Law

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TCI Pacific Communications, LLC (“TCI”) appealed a district court’s judgment holding it liable to Cyprus Amax Minerals Co. (“Cyprus”) for contribution under 42 U.S.C. sections 9601(9)(B), 9607(a), and 9613(f) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response and Liability Act (“CERCLA”). This case involved claims brought by Cyprus to determine whether TCI could be held liable for environmental cleanup costs relating to zinc smelting operations near Collinsville, Oklahoma. The Bartlesville Zinc Company, a former subsidiary of Cyprus’s predecessor, operated the Bartlesville Zinc Smelter (the “BZ Smelter”) from 1911 to 1918, near Collinsville, Oklahoma. TFMC owned and operated another zinc smelter (the “TFM Smelter”) from 1911 to 1926. This case does not concern cleanup work at either smelter, but rather is an action by Cyprus seeking cost recovery and contribution for its remediation in the broader Collinsville area, within the Collinsville Soil Program (“CSP”) Study Area. Cyprus sought to hold TCI liable as a former owner or operator of the TFM Smelter whose waste was located throughout the CSP Study Area. The district court granted partial summary judgment to Cyprus and pierced the corporate veil to hold TCI’s corporate predecessor, the New Jersey Zinc Company (“NJZ”), liable as the alter ego of the Tulsa Fuel & Manufacturing Co. (“TFMC”). The district court then interpreted CERCLA and held that TCI was liable as a former owner/operator of a CERCLA “facility.” Finding no reversible error in the district court's judgment, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Cyprus Amax Minerals Company v. TCI Pacific Communications" on Justia Law