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

Articles Posted in Environmental Law
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The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's judgment setting aside a land-exchange agreement between the Secretary of the Interior and King Cove, an Alaska Native village corporation. King Cove seeks to use the land it will obtain in the exchange to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to allow access to the city of Cold Bay.The panel explained that one of the purposes of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) is to address the economic and social needs of Alaskans. The panel concluded that the Secretary appropriately weighed those needs against the other statutory purposes in deciding whether to enter the land-exchange agreement. The panel disagreed with the district court's conclusion that the Secretary violated the Administrative Procedure Act by departing from his predecessor's position on the land exchange without adequate explanation. Rather, the panel concluded that the Secretary acknowledged the competing policy considerations and that the prior findings that keeping the area roadless would best protect the habitat and wildlife of the Izembek Refuge. Finally, the panel concluded that the land-exchange agreement is not subject to the special procedures that ANILCA requires for the approval of transportation systems. The panel agreed with the government that the Secretary need not follow the process because 16 U.S.C. 3192(h), the land-exchange provision that he invoked, was not an "applicable law" for purposes of Title XI of ANILCA. View "Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges v. Haaland" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Service in an action challenging the Service's "barred owl removal experiment," which was designed to protect the northern spotted owl, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The panel held that this experiment will produce a "net conservation benefit" under the plain language of the ESA’s implementing regulations because it allows the agency to obtain critical information to craft a policy to protect threatened or endangered species. The panel also held that the Service did not have to conduct a supplemental environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) because it had adequately contemplated this experiment in its earlier analysis. Accordingly, the Service complied with both the ESA and NEPA in issuing the permits and safe harbor agreements. View "Friends of Animals v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service" on Justia Law

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The U.S. Forest Service proposed “thinning” overcrowded areas in Cuddy Valley within Los Padres National Forest. If some trees are not removed, the forest will face increased risks of wildfires, and insects and diseases may ravage the trees, according to the Forest Service.The Ninth Circuit rejected a challenge by environmental groups. The “CE-6” exemption, 36 C.F.R. 220.6(e)(6) to the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. 4321, unambiguously allows the Forest Service to thin trees, including larger commercially viable ones, to reduce fire hazards without having to conduct an environmental impact statement or an environmental assessment. Its plain language does not limit thinning by tree age, size, or type. Nor is thinning defined to exclude commercial thinning. If the thinning project reduces fire hazards and meets certain other conditions, CE-6 greenlights the project, even if it means felling commercially viable trees. The Forest Service did not act arbitrarily in invoking the CE-6 exemption and did not violate the National Forest Management Act, 16 U.S.C. 1600, which sets certain aesthetic management standards. The Service did not have to explain how the project would meet such standards but did explain how the project area would retain sufficient scenic integrity. View "Mountain Communities for Fire Safety v. Elliott" on Justia Law

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Tecuya Ridge, within the Los Padres National Forest, is home to densely populated forest stands that the Forest Service determined to be at risk of destruction by wildfire. The Tecuya Ridge Shaded Fuelbreak Project authorized thinning 1,626 acres of forest, including approximately 1,100 acres within the protected Antimony Inventoried Roadless Area. The Roadless Area Conservation Rule generally prohibits timber cutting, sale, or removal in areas like Antimony, with some exceptions.The Ninth Circuit vacated the approval. The Service’s conclusion that the Project was consistent with the Rule was arbitrary and capricious as was its determination that 21-inch diameter trees were “generally small timber.” The Service’s determination that the Project will “maintain or improve” Antimony’s characteristics was not arbitrary; the Service articulated a satisfactory explanation. The decision to “categorically exclude” the Project from review in an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement, under the National Environmental Policy Act was not arbitrary and capricious. The court agreed that Categorical Exclusion 6 (CE-6) applied and that no extraordinary circumstances prevented CE-6's application to the Project. Consistent with 36 C.F.R. 220.6, the Service analyzed each resource condition that should be considered in determining whether there were extraordinary circumstances related to the proposed action and determined that the Project would have “no significant impact” on each. The decision to locate the Project in the “wildland zone” instead of the “threat zone” was not arbitrary. View "Los Padres ForestWatch v. United States Forest Service" on Justia Law

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Environmental groups filed suit, alleging that the federal government unlawfully issued oil and gas leases on federal land. The district court stayed vacatur of the lease sales pending appeal. Two weeks later, Chesapeake, an independent producer of oil and natural gas, moved to intervene as a defendant, noting that it had already spent more than $19.7 million to acquire, explore, and develop its leases.The Ninth Circuit reversed the denial of the motion. Chesapeake was entitled to intervention as of right under FRCP 24(a). Chesapeake has a significantly protectable interest that could be impaired by the disposition of this action, its intervention motion was timely, and its interests will not be adequately represented by existing parties. The court noted the stage of the proceedings at which Chesapeake sought to intervene; potential prejudice to other parties; and the reason for and length of the delay. The likelihood that additional parties and arguments might make the resolution of the case more difficult was a poor reason to deny intervention. Although Chesapeake moved to intervene more than two years after the start of the litigation, its motion came just three months after it discovered that its leases were involved in the litigation, and just two weeks after the district court stayed vacatur of the lease sales. Chesapeake made sufficiently colorable arguments that another intervenor would not make all of Chesapeake’s proposed arguments. View "Western Watersheds Project v. Haaland" on Justia Law

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In an order, the panel granted a petition for panel rehearing, withdrew the opinion filed September 16, 2021, and replaced it with a superseding opinion that granted a petition for review brought by environmental organizations challenging a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit issued by the EPA for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in Idaho.In the superseding opinion, the panel wrote that, because the Permit does not require monitoring that would ensure compliance with its effluent limitations, the EPA’s issuance of the Permit was arbitrary, capricious, and a violation of law. The panel granted the petition and remanded the Permit to the EPA for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. View "Food & Water Watch v. Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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To comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, the FAA issued an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the construction and operation of an air cargo facility at the San Bernardino International Airport. The Record of Decision found no significant environmental impact. Objectors asserted that the FAA did not conform its study areas to the FAA’s Order 1050.1F Desk Reference.The Ninth Circuit rejected a petition for review. The FAA’s nonadherence to the Desk Reference could not alone serve as the basis for holding that the FAA did not take a “hard look” at the environmental consequences. Rejecting an argument that the FAA should have expanded its assessment to include more than 80 projects, the court held that the record showed that the FAA did consider the fact that the additional projects would result in massive average daily trips in the first year of operations.The court rejected California’s argument that the FAA needed to create an environmental impact statement because a California Environmental Impact Report found that the proposed Project could result in significant impacts on air quality, greenhouse gas, and noise. The South Coast Air Quality Management District’s own assessment was that the Project will comply with federal and state air quality standards. The court also rejected California’s noise concerns. Objectors failed to show arbitrariness or capriciousness in the EA’s truck trip calculation method and provided no reason to believe that the Project threatened to violate federal ozone standards. View "Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice v. Federal Aviation Administration" on Justia Law

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The Clean Water Act requires states to adopt water quality standards regulating pollutants in their navigable waters, including the designated uses for the water body, such as supporting aquatic life or recreational use and the “water quality criteria” necessary to protect those uses, 33 U.S.C. 1313(c)(2)(A). The EPA approved Montana’s water quality standards in 2015. In 2017, Montana obtained EPA’s approval of a variance in the water quality standard, which covered 36 municipal wastewater treatment facilities for up to 17 years and allowed those facilities to discharge more nitrogen and phosphorus into wadeable streams than would be permitted under the approved base water standards.The Ninth Circuit rejected a challenge. The Act did not preclude the EPA from taking compliance costs into account when approving the variance requests. Congress has not directly spoken to that precise question and the EPA reasonably construed section 1313(c)(2)(A) as permitting it to consider compliance costs. The EPA’s variance regulation neither requires compliance with the highest attainable condition at the outset of the variance term nor requires compliance with base water quality standards by the end of that term. The regulations include numerous features to ensure that dischargers and waterbodies subject to variances continued to improve water quality, consistent with the goals of the Act, including supporting aquatic life and recreational uses whenever attainable. View "Upper Missouri Waterkeeper v, United States Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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River Watch sued the City of Vacaville under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), 42 U.S.C. 6902(b), claiming that Vacaville’s water wells were contaminated by a carcinogen (hexavalent chromium), which was transported to Vacaville residents through its water distribution system, thereby contributing to the transportation of a solid waste in violation of RCRA. The district court concluded that the hexavalent chromium was not a “solid waste” under RCRA because it was not a “discarded material” and granted Vacaville summary judgment.The Ninth Circuit vacated. River Watch sufficiently raised an argument that the hexavalent chromium was “discarded material” that allegedly had migrated through groundwater from the “Wickes site,” where it had been dumped by operators of wood treatment facilities by presenting evidence that when the hexavalent chromium was discharged into the environment after the wood treatment process, it was not serving its intended use as a preservative, and it was not the result of natural wear and tear. Instead, the hexavalent chromium was leftover waste, abandoned and cast aside by the facilities’ operators. There also was a triable issue whether Vacaville was a “past or present transporter” of solid waste. RCRA does not require that the “transporter” of solid waste must also play some role in “discarding” the waste. View "California River Watch v. City of Vacaville" on Justia Law

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The Defendants, Ohana Military Communities, LLC and Forest City Residential Management, began a major housing construction project on Marine Corps Base Hawaii (MCBH) in 2006. MCBH was widely contaminated with pesticides potentially impacting human health. Defendants developed and implemented a Pesticide Soil Management Plan but allegedly never informed residential tenants of the Plan, the decade-long remediation efforts, or known pesticide contamination. Plaintiffs, military servicemember families, filed suit in Hawaii state court alleging 11 different claims under state law. Defendants removed the case to federal court.The Ninth Circuit reversed the denial of the Plaintiffs’ motion to remand. Federal jurisdiction did not exist because, under the Hawaii Admission Act, 73 Stat. 4 (1959), Hawaii had concurrent legislative or political jurisdiction over MCBH, so state law had not been assimilated into federal law. The court rejected an argument that, regardless of any concurrent state jurisdiction, federal jurisdiction exists where federally owned or controlled land is involved, and a substantial federal interest exists. There was no federal officer or agency jurisdiction because there was no causal nexus between the Navy and Ohana under 28 U.S.C. 1442, and Ohana was not a federal agency for purposes of federal jurisdiction. Under the Gunn test, no federal issue was “necessarily raised.” View "Lake v. Ohana Military Communities, LLC" on Justia Law