Articles Posted in Environmental 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

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Plaintiffs-Appellants WildEarth Guardians and Sierra Club challenged the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) decision to approve four coal leases in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Plaintiffs brought an Administrative Procedure Act (APA) claim arguing that the BLM failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it concluded that issuing the leases would not result in higher national carbon dioxide emissions than would declining to issue them. The district court upheld the leases. The Tenth Circuit held the BLM’s Environmental Impact Studies and Records Of Decisions were arbitrary and capricious because they omitted data pertinent to its choice with respect to issuing the leases, and thereby informing the public of its rationale. The Tenth Circuit remanded with instructions to the BLM to revise its Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) and Records of Decision (RODs). The Court did not vacate the resulting leases. View "WildEarth Guardians v. Bureau of Land Management" on Justia Law

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In an amendment to the Clean Air Act (CAA), Congress directed the EPA to operate a Renewable Fuel Standards Program (the RFS Program) to increase oil refineries’ use of renewable fuels. But for small refineries that would suffer a “disproportionate economic hardship” in complying with the RFS Program, the statute required the EPA to grant exemptions on a case-by-case basis. Petitioner Sinclair Wyoming Refining Company owned and operated two refineries in Wyoming: one in Sinclair, and another in Casper. Both fell within the RFS Program’s definition of “small refinery” and were exempt from the RFS requirements until 2011. Those exemptions were extended until 2013 after the Department of Energy found Sinclair’s Wyoming refineries to be among the 13 of 59 small refineries that would continue to face “disproportionate economic hardship” if required to comply with the RFS Program. Sinclair then petitioned the EPA to extend their small-refinery exemptions. The EPA denied Sinclair’s petitions in two separate decisions, finding that both refineries appeared to be profitable enough to pay the cost of the RFS Program. Sinclair filed a timely petition for review with the Tenth Circuit court, which concluded the EPA exceeded its statutory authority under the CAA in interpreting the hardship exemption to require a threat to a refinery’s survival as an ongoing operation. Because the Court found the EPA exceeded its statutory authority, it vacated the EPA’s decisions and remanded to the EPA for further proceedings. View "Sinclair Wyoming Refining v. EPA" on Justia Law

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Under the federal environmental laws, the owner of property contaminated with hazardous substances or a person who arranges for the disposal of hazardous substances may be strictly liable for subsequent clean-up costs. The United States owned national forest lands in New Mexico that were mined over several generations by Chevron Mining Inc. The question presented for the Tenth Circuit’s review was whether the United States is a “potentially responsible party” (PRP) for the environmental contamination located on that land. The Tenth Circuit concluded that under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), the United States is an “owner,” and, therefore, a PRP, because it was strictly liable for its equitable portion of the costs necessary to remediate the contamination arising from mining activity on federal land. The Court also concluded the United States cannot be held liable as an “arranger” of hazardous substance disposal because it did not own or possess the substances in question. The Court reversed the district court in part and affirmed in part, remanding for further proceedings to determine the United States’ equitable share, if any, of the clean-up costs. View "Chevron Mining v. United States" on Justia Law