Justia U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Environmental Law
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The case involves the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance (Soundkeeper), an environmental organization, and the Port of Tacoma and SSA Terminals, LLC (collectively, the Port), operators of the West Sitcum Terminal, a marine cargo terminal. The dispute centers on a portion of the terminal known as "the Wharf," where stormwater runoff carries pollutants into Puget Sound. The Soundkeeper alleges that the Port violated the Clean Water Act by not implementing stormwater controls across the entire facility, including the Wharf. The Port argues that the Wharf is not subject to regulation because it does not conduct industrial activities that require a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.The case was first heard in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, which granted partial summary judgment in favor of the Port. The court concluded that the Industrial Stormwater General Permits (ISGPs) issued by the Washington State Department of Ecology did not extend coverage to the Wharf, as the Wharf did not conduct the industrial activities specified in the permits.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed in part and vacated in part the district court's decision. The appellate court held that the plain text of the 2010 and 2015 ISGPs required a transportation facility conducting industrial activities to implement stormwater controls across the entire facility. Therefore, the Port needed to implement appropriate stormwater controls across the Terminal while the 2010 and 2015 ISGPs were in effect. The court also held that the ISGPs were enforceable in a citizen suit, even if they exceeded the requirements of the federal regulations.However, the court vacated the district court's decision regarding the 2020 ISGP, which was subject to an ongoing state-court challenge, and remanded the case for further consideration. The court instructed the district court to consider the effect of the state proceedings on this case. View "PSA V. PORT OF TACOMA" on Justia Law

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The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other environmental groups sued the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), alleging that they violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA) by failing to adequately consult over whether the renewal of government water supply contracts would likely jeopardize the existence of the delta smelt and by failing to reinitiate consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) regarding the contracts’ effects on Chinook salmon. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision, holding that the federal agencies complied with their obligations under the APA and ESA. The court found that FWS's consultation on the renewal of the contracts was not arbitrary and capricious, and that Reclamation did not act arbitrarily and capriciously by relying on it. The court also rejected NRDC's argument that Reclamation violated its obligations under the ESA by misinforming FWS regarding the scope of its discretion to negotiate the contracts. Finally, the court concluded that the renewed contracts did not give Reclamation the discretion to take measures that would benefit the Chinook salmon, and therefore the district court did not err in dismissing NRDC's fifth claim for relief for failure to state a claim. View "NRDC v. Haaland" on Justia Law

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A group of environmental organizations challenged the U.S. Forest Service's approval of the Long Valley Exploration Drilling Project, a mineral exploration project on land in the Inyo National Forest in California. The Forest Service had approved the project by invoking two Categorical Exclusions (CEs) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which allow certain actions to bypass more extensive environmental review. The environmental groups argued that the Forest Service could not combine two CEs to approve the project when neither CE alone could cover the entire project.The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Forest Service and KORE Mining Ltd., the company that proposed the project. The environmental groups appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's decision. The court found that the two-phase project was a single proposed action and that the Forest Service's regulations prohibited combining CEs when no single CE could cover a proposed action alone. The court also held that the Forest Service's error in combining the two CEs was not harmless and remanded the case to the district court to enter summary judgment in favor of the environmental groups, vacating the agency's decision. View "FRIENDS OF THE INYO V. USFS" on Justia Law

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In 2022, the California Legislature directed Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to extend operations at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, despite PG&E's previous plans to cease operations. However, the deadline for a federal license renewal application for continued operation had already passed. PG&E requested an exemption from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to this deadline, which the NRC granted. The NRC found that the exemption was authorized by law, would not pose an undue risk to public health and safety, and that special circumstances were present. The NRC also concluded that the exemption met the eligibility criteria for a categorical exclusion, meaning no additional environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act was required.Three non-profit organizations, San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, Friends of the Earth, and the Environmental Working Group, petitioned for review of the NRC's decision. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals first addressed whether it had jurisdiction to hear a direct appeal from an NRC exemption decision. The court held that it did have jurisdiction, as the substance of the exemption was ancillary or incidental to a licensing proceeding. The court also concluded that the petitioners had Article III standing to bring the case, as they alleged a non-speculative potential harm from age-related safety and environmental risks, demonstrated that Diablo Canyon would likely continue operations beyond its initial 40-year license term, and alleged members’ proximity to the facility.On the merits, the court held that the NRC’s decision to grant the exemption was not arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to law. The court also held that the NRC did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in invoking the National Environmental Policy Act categorical exclusion when issuing the exemption decision. The court concluded that the NRC was not required to provide a hearing or meet other procedural requirements before issuing the exemption decision because the exemption was not a licensing proceeding. The court denied the petition for review. View "SAN LUIS OBISPO MOTHERS FOR PEACE V. UNITED STATES NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION" on Justia Law

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The case involves a dispute over Montana's laws authorizing recreational wolf and coyote trapping and snaring. The plaintiffs, Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force and WildEarth Guardians, alleged that these laws allowed the unlawful "take" of grizzly bears, a threatened species, in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The district court granted the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, limiting wolf trapping and snaring in certain parts of Montana to a specific period in 2024.The defendants, the State of Montana, the Chair of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the Governor, appealed the decision. They argued that the district court had erred by considering new arguments and materials submitted with the plaintiffs' reply brief, by applying the wrong preliminary injunction standard, and by finding a reasonably certain threat of imminent harm to grizzly bears.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision in part and vacated it in part. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by considering new arguments and materials, as the defendants had an opportunity to respond. The court also held that the district court applied the correct preliminary injunction standard and did not abuse its discretion in finding serious questions going to the merits of the plaintiffs' claim.However, the court found that the injunction was geographically overbroad and remanded the case for the district court to reconsider the geographic scope. The court also held that the injunction was overbroad because it prevented the State of Montana from trapping and snaring wolves for research. The court vacated that part of the injunction and remanded the case for the district court to make proper modifications to the scope of its order. View "FLATHEAD-LOLO-BITTERROOT CITIZEN TASK FORCE V. STATE OF MONTANA" on Justia Law

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The Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project (BMBP) sued the U.S. Forest Service, alleging that the Service's approval of the Walton Lake Restoration Project violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Forest Management Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The Forest Service developed the project to replace trees infested with laminated root rot and bark beetles with disease-resistant trees. In 2016, the Service contracted with T2, a private company, for logging to implement the decision. BMBP filed this action challenging the 2020 decision notice. The Service filed an administrative record (AR) in 2021.BMBP argued that the AR was incomplete, contending that deliberative materials were part of the “whole record” and that a privilege log was required if they were not included in the AR. BMBP also argued that all documents in the 2016 AR should be in the AR for this case. The court held that deliberative materials are generally not part of the AR absent impropriety or bad faith by the agency. The court also held that BMBP’s arguments failed to overcome the presumption of regularity.The court then addressed whether the Service violated NEPA by approving the Project. The court held that BMBP failed to establish that the logging contract with T2 improperly committed resources under any standard. The court also rejected BMBP’s contention that the EA diluted the significance of some impacts by analyzing them on too large a scale. The court affirmed the judgment of the district court and lifted the previous stay of its order dissolving the preliminary injunction. View "BMBP V. JEFFRIES" on Justia Law

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The Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency (SCVWA), a public water agency, sued Whittaker Corporation for contaminating groundwater that the agency pumps from wells. The jury found Whittaker liable for negligence, trespass, public nuisance, and private nuisance, and awarded damages for past harm and restoration or repair costs. The jury verdict was reduced to $64,870,000 due to SCVWA’s fault for failure to mitigate damages and an offset for a settlement between SCVWA and a third party. After a bench trial on the statutory claims, the district court denied SCVWA relief under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and apportioned costs under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) to SCVWA and Whittaker.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the jury award on Whittaker’s appeal. On SCVWA’s cross-appeal, the court affirmed in part, holding that the district court’s denial of injunctive relief under RCRA, denial of prejudgment interest, and denial of attorneys' fees were proper. However, the court reversed in part, holding that the district court erred in denying SCVWA a finding of liability against Whittaker for one category of incurred response costs under CERCLA and by denying SCVWA declaratory relief under CERCLA. The court remanded the case for the district court to amend its judgment. View "SANTA CLARITA VALLEY WATER AGENCY V. WHITTAKER CORPORATION" on Justia Law

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The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to comply with both the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in its decision to amend the registration of streptomycin for use on citrus crops. The case was brought by a group of environmental advocacy and public interest organizations against the EPA.The EPA had concluded that the registration of streptomycin for use on citrus would not cause "unreasonable adverse effects on the environment." However, the court disagreed, finding a lack of substantial evidence for some of the EPA’s conclusions. In particular, the court held that the EPA’s assessment of the risk to pollinators (bees) was incomplete or inadequately explained, and the agency failed to provide a sufficient explanation for the registration labels’ suggestion that streptomycin could be used to prevent citrus diseases.Furthermore, the court also found that the EPA failed to comply with the ESA. According to the ESA, the EPA should have determined whether the pesticide registration "may affect" any endangered species or critical habitat, which it failed to do.As a result, the court vacated the EPA’s amended registration of streptomycin for use on citrus crops and remanded the case back to the agency to address the errors in its FIFRA analysis and to conduct an ESA effects determination. View "MIGRANT CLINICIANS NETWORK V. USEPA" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's summary judgment in favor of the U.S. Forest Service in a case brought by Earth Island Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity. The plaintiffs challenged the Forest Service's approval of the Three Creeks Project, which aimed to restore the Inyo National Forest to its pre-European settlement conditions by thinning excess trees, removing excess fire fuel, and using prescribed fire. The plaintiffs argued that the Forest Service failed to adequately consider alternatives to logging, failed to solicit public comments following its 2018 Environmental Assessment, and failed to supplement its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis following a 2020 bark-beetle outbreak. The court found that the plaintiff had not shown that the Service's approval of the Three Creeks Project was arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise unlawful. The Service considered a reasonable range of alternatives, offered the public a reasonable opportunity to comment, and was not required to conduct further NEPA analysis following the bark-beetle outbreak. The court also held that the plaintiff had not properly raised its proposed alternatives during the comment period, and therefore it failed to exhaust its argument. Additionally, the court did not consider the plaintiff's claim regarding the Inyo Craters Project since it was not included in its amended complaint. View "EARTH ISLAND INSTITUTE V. USFS" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated a Biological Opinion (BiOp) by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) and remanded the case for further consideration. The case involved a dispute over the use of water from the San Pedro River Basin in Arizona by the U.S. Army's Fort Huachuca. The Army uses water from the basin, which is also home to several species protected under the Endangered Species Act. To compensate for the water use, the federal government proposed a "conservation easement" that would limit the use of nearby land for agricultural purposes, therefore saving water and protecting the wildlife that depend on the basin. The plaintiffs, environmental organizations, argued that the BiOp lacked evidence to support the claim of water savings from the easement. The Ninth Circuit agreed, stating that the government's determination that the easement would not jeopardize wildlife was arbitrary and capricious due to the lack of evidence supporting the claimed water savings. The court stated that the government must show that the benefit from the conservation easement would be "reasonably certain" under the relevant regulations. The court also held that the government's conclusion that reduced flow in the Babocomari River, a tributary of the San Pedro River, would not jeopardize the northern Mexican gartersnake was not arbitrary and capricious. View "CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY V. DEB HAALAND" on Justia Law