Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Environmental Law
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The Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division One, addressed an appeal from Hilltop Group, Inc., and ADJ Holdings, LLC (Hilltop Group), regarding a dispute with the County of San Diego (County), over the proposed North County Environmental Resources Project (NCER Project), a recycling facility. The Hilltop Group applied to develop the NCER Project on a parcel of land that was designated for industrial use by the County as part of its General Plan Update (GPU) in 2011. However, the project faced significant opposition from community members, homeowners associations, and the nearby City of Escondido due to concerns over potential environmental impacts.The County staff initially required Hilltop Group to conduct environmental studies. Based on these studies, the County concluded that the NCER Project qualified for a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) exemption under section 21083.3, meaning that no further environmental review would be needed. However, this decision was appealed to the Board of Supervisors, who voted to grant the appeals and require further environmental review. The Hilltop Group challenged this decision in court, arguing that the NCER Project did not have any significant and peculiar environmental effects that were not already evaluated by the program Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the GPU.The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hilltop Group, finding that the Board of Supervisors did not proceed in a manner required by law when they denied the exemption and failed to limit further environmental review to those effects enumerated in Guidelines section 15183, subdivision (b)(1) through (4). The court concluded that the Board of Supervisors' findings of peculiar environmental effects in the areas of aesthetics, noise, traffic, air quality, and GHG emissions were not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Therefore, the court held that the Board of Supervisors' decision denying the CEQA exemption and requiring the preparation of an EIR constituted a prejudicial abuse of discretion. The court reversed the trial court's judgment and directed it to enter a new judgment granting the petition and issuing a peremptory writ of mandate directing the County to set aside its decision granting the administrative appeals and requiring the preparation of an EIR. View "Hilltop Group, Inc. v. County of San Diego" on Justia Law

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The case involves Hans Utsch and Julia H. Merck's appeal against a denial of their petition for judicial review of an email from the mining coordinator of the Department of Environmental Protection. The case originates from Harold MacQuinn, Inc.'s intent to restart quarry operations in Hall Quarry, Mount Desert. Under Maine law, quarry operations must comply with performance standards, and those intending to operate a quarry must file a “notice of intent to comply” (NOITC) with these performance standards. The email that Utsch and Merck challenge is about whether MacQuinn is required to file a NOITC.From 2012 to 2015, the mining coordinator asserted that MacQuinn did not need to file a NOITC, as the quarry operated before 1970 and was thus grandfathered into the performance standards for quarries. In 2017, the Legislature passed an act that added temporal language to the performance standards for quarries, limiting the one-acre threshold to areas excavated since January 1, 1970. MacQuinn modified its excavation plan so that the total area excavated would not exceed one acre, thus not requiring a NOITC according to the mining coordinator.Utsch and Merck, who live near the quarry, filed a petition for review of the mining coordinator’s email, claiming that the Department violated statutory provisions by determining that MacQuinn does not have to file a NOITC before operating the quarry. The Superior Court denied their petition, on the basis that the email was a final agency action and Utsch and Merck had standing to appeal it.On appeal, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court vacated the Superior Court’s judgment and remanded for dismissal of the petition. The court held that the mining coordinator’s email was not a final agency action, as it did not affect anyone’s “legal rights, duties or privileges” under the Maine Administrative Procedure Act. The court further held that Utsch and Merck's petition was not ripe for consideration as a declaratory judgment action because it fails both prongs required for ripeness, as their allegations were too uncertain and speculative. View "Utsch v. Department of Environmental Protection" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Supreme Court of the State of Nevada considered whether the Nevada State Engineer had the authority to combine multiple existing hydrographic basins into one "superbasin" for the purposes of water administration and management based on a shared source of water. The State Engineer had combined seven basins into one superbasin, the Lower White River Flow System (LWRFS), after determining that the waters of these basins were interconnected such that withdrawals from one basin affected the amount of water in the other basins. The State Engineer also found that the previously granted appropriations of water exceeded the rate of recharge in the LWRFS. Various entities who owned water rights throughout the new superbasin challenged the State Engineer's decision, claiming that he lacked the authority to manage surface waters and groundwater jointly and that his decision violated their due process rights.The Supreme Court of the State of Nevada held that the State Engineer indeed had the authority to manage surface waters and groundwater conjunctively and to jointly administer multiple basins. The court also found that the State Engineer did not violate the rights holders' due process rights because they received notice and had an opportunity to be heard. The court reversed the lower court's decision that had granted the rights holders' petitions for judicial review and remanded the matter back to the lower court for further proceedings to determine whether substantial evidence supported the State Engineer's factual determinations. View "Sullivan v. Lincoln County Water District" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Court of Appeal of the State of California Third Appellate District considered whether the planning and implementation of amendments to long-term contracts with local government agencies that receive water through the State Water Project violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act (Delta Reform Act), and the public trust doctrine. The Department of Water Resources (the department) had determined that these amendments, which extended the contract terms to 2085 and made financial changes to the contracts, would not have an environmental impact. The department then filed an action to validate the amendments. Several conservation groups and public agencies contested this action, bringing separate actions challenging the amendments. After a coordinated proceeding, the trial court ruled in favor of the department. The appellants appealed this decision, but the Court of Appeal affirmed the lower court's ruling. The court found that the department had followed the correct procedures under CEQA, that the amendments did not violate the Delta Reform Act or the public trust doctrine, and that it was not necessary to recirculate the Environmental Impact Report for further public comment. The court also rejected the appellants' arguments that the department had improperly segmented its environmental analysis and that its project description was inaccurate or unstable. Finally, the court held that the amendments were not a "covered action" under the Delta Reform Act requiring a consistency certification with the Delta Plan. View "Planning and Conservation League v. Dept. of Water Resources" on Justia Law

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In a case involving the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. and others (appellants) against the City of Los Angeles and others (respondents), the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division One, reversed and remanded a lower court's decision for further proceedings. The case revolved around the preparation of a supplemental environmental impact report (SEIR) under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for the continued operation of the China Shipping Container Terminal located in the Port of Los Angeles. The appellants alleged that the SEIR violated CEQA in multiple ways, including the failure to ensure that mitigation measures were enforceable and the failure to adequately analyze the emissions impacts of the project. The trial court agreed with some of the appellants' claims and ordered the Port to set aside the certification of the 2019 SEIR and prepare a revised SEIR that complies with CEQA. However, the court did not impose further remedies, such as the cessation of Port activities or the required implementation of certain mitigation measures. The court's decision was appealed by the appellants, who argued that the trial court erred in its determination of the remedy and that certain other mitigation measures in the SEIR were not supported by substantial evidence. The appellate court agreed with some of these claims and reversed the trial court's decision. It remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings, including the consideration of its authority to fashion an appropriate remedy in light of the CEQA violations. View "Natural Resources Defense Council v. City of Los Angeles" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Vermont Public Utility Commission approving a contract under 30 V.S.A. § 248(i) for the purchase of out-of-state renewable natural gas by Vermont Gas Systems, Inc. (VGS). The contract, which was proposed to last for fourteen-and-a-half years, required VGS to purchase a minimum volume of renewable natural gas that would be produced and transported from a landfill in New York. The contract was part of VGS's efforts to invest in nonfossil gas and incorporate renewable natural gas into its gas supply to meet regulatory requirements and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.The appellant, Catherine Bock, a ratepaying customer of VGS, challenged the Commission's findings with respect to the contract’s contribution towards satisfying emissions reductions under the Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020. Bock also disputed the Commission’s finding that the contract, with a condition imposed by the Commission, would comply with least-cost planning principles.The court rejected Bock's arguments, finding that the Commission's conclusions were supported by the evidence in the record and were not clearly erroneous. The court noted that the contract was only one of VGS's strategies to reduce emissions pursuant to the Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020. It also pointed out that there was sufficient evidence to support the Commission's determination that the contract was cost-effective and consistent with least-cost planning principles. View "In re Petition of Vermont Gas Systems, Inc." on Justia Law

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In a dispute over the classification of two Texas counties under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the EPA's decision to designate the counties as "nonattainment" for sulfur dioxide emissions. The dispute arose when the EPA initially designated Rusk and Panola counties as nonattainment based on data submitted by the Sierra Club. The EPA later proposed to change the designation to "unclassifiable" after it found the initial data to be potentially erroneous. However, in June 2021, the EPA withdrew the proposal and upheld the initial nonattainment designation. The State of Texas and Luminant Generation Company, companies adversely affected by the nonattainment designation, petitioned for a review of the EPA's decision. The court held that the EPA's decision was not arbitrary, capricious, or unlawful, but rather a valid exercise of the agency's discretion based on its technical expertise and review of complex scientific data. The court also found that the EPA did not misconceive its legal authority or fail to treat like cases alike in its decision-making process. View "State of Texas v. Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied a motion filed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to transfer a case brought by the state of West Virginia to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia or to dismiss it due to improper venue. The case pertains to the EPA's disapproval of West Virginia's State Implementation Plan (SIP), which the state had submitted as part of its obligation under the Clean Air Act to address the emission of gases contributing to the formation of ground-level ozone. The EPA had disapproved West Virginia's SIP because it found that the plan did not sufficiently reduce ozone-forming emissions that were adversely affecting air quality in downwind states. The Fourth Circuit court also granted the state of West Virginia's motion to stay the EPA's final action pending the outcome of its petition for review. The court's decision on venue was based on its interpretation of the Clean Air Act, which stipulates that the venue for review of EPA actions depends on whether the action is nationally applicable or locally or regionally applicable. The court concluded that the EPA's disapproval of West Virginia's SIP was based on circumstances particular to West Virginia and therefore was locally or regionally applicable. View "State of West Virginia v. EPA" on Justia Law

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In the case of Planning and Conservation League et al., v. Department of Water Resources heard in the California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, the court considered whether the Department of Water Resources’ (department) approval of amendments to long-term contracts with local government agencies that receive water through the State Water Project violated various laws. The amendments extended the contracts to 2085 and expanded the facilities listed as eligible for revenue bond financing. Several conservation groups and public agencies challenged the amendments, arguing they violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act (Delta Reform Act), and the public trust doctrine. However, the court held that the department did not violate CEQA, the Delta Reform Act, or the public trust doctrine, and therefore affirmed the trial court's judgment in favor of the department. The court found that the department used the correct baseline for its environmental impact report (EIR), properly segmented the amendments from related projects, and adequately considered the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of the amendments. The court also held that the department adequately described the project and considered a reasonable range of alternatives, and that recirculation of the EIR was not required. The court rejected arguments that the amendments violated the Delta Reform Act or the public trust doctrine, finding that they did not impact "water that is imbued with the public trust." The court concluded that the department acted within its authority in approving and executing the amendments. View "Planning and Conservation League v. Dept. of Water Resources" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of New Hampshire reversed a decision by the New Hampshire Waste Management Council (Council) that had found the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES) acted unlawfully in issuing a permit to North Country Environmental Services, Inc. (NCES) for the expansion of a landfill. The Council had ruled in favor of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), which argued the permit did not meet the "capacity need" as required by law. The Supreme Court ruled that the Council erred in its interpretation of "capacity need" under RSA 149-M:11, V(d) and concluded that DES has the discretion to determine whether a capacity need exists. The Court also found that the CLF had standing to appeal the permit to the Council. View "Appeal of New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services; Appeal of North Country Environmental Services, Inc." on Justia Law