Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Environmental Law
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Maui’s wastewater reclamation facility collects sewage, partially treats it, and daily pumps around four million gallons of treated water into the ground through four wells. This effluent then travels about a half-mile, through groundwater, to the Pacific Ocean. Environmental groups brought a citizens’ suit under the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1365, alleging that Maui was “discharg[ing]” a “pollutant” to “navigable waters” without the required permit. The Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the environmentalists.The Supreme Court vacated. The Act requires a permit when there is a direct discharge from a point source into navigable waters or when there is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge. The Court rejected both the Ninth Circuit’s broad “fairly traceable” interpretation and the total exclusion of all discharges through groundwater, as urged by Maui and reflected in the EPA’s recent Interpretive Statement, that “all releases of pollutants to groundwater” are excluded from the scope of the permitting program." That interpretation is inconsistent with the statute’s reference to “any addition” of a pollutant from a "point source" to navigable waters, given the statute’s inclusion of “wells” in the “point source” definition; wells ordinarily discharge pollutants through groundwater.The statute is intended to provide federal regulation of identifiable sources of pollutants entering navigable waters without undermining the states’ longstanding regulatory authority over land and groundwater. A permit is required when there is a discharge from a point source directly into navigable waters or when there is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge. Many factors may be relevant to determining whether a particular discharge is the functional equivalent of one directly into navigable waters. Time and distance will be the most important factors in most cases, but other relevant factors may include the nature of the material through which the pollutant travels and the extent to which the pollutant is diluted or chemically changed as it travels. Although this interpretation does not present a clear line, the EPA has applied the permitting provision to some discharges through groundwater for over 30 years, with no evidence of inadministrability or an unmanageable expansion in the statute’s scope. View "County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund" on Justia Law

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For nearly a century, the Anaconda Copper Smelter contaminated 300 square miles with arsenic and lead. For 35 years, the EPA has worked with the now-closed smelter’s current owner, Atlantic Richfield, to implement a cleanup plan. Landowners sued Atlantic Richfield in state court for common law nuisance, trespass, and strict liability, seeking restoration damages, which Montana law requires to be spent on property rehabilitation. The landowners’ proposed plan exceeds the measures found necessary to protect human health and the environment by EPA. Montana courts rejected an argument that the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, 42 U.S.C. 9601, section 113, stripped them of jurisdiction. Section 113 states that no potentially responsible party (PRP) "may undertake any remedial action” at the site without EPA approval and provides federal courts with “exclusive original jurisdiction over all controversies arising under” the Act.The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in part. The Act does not strip the Montana courts of jurisdiction over this lawsuit. The common law claims “arise under” Montana law, not under the Act. Section 113(b) deprives state courts of jurisdiction over cases “arising under” the Act while section 113(h) deprives federal courts of jurisdiction over certain “challenges” to remedial actions; section 113(h) does not broaden section 113(b).The Court vacated in part. The landowners are PRPs who need EPA approval to take remedial action. Section 107, the liability section, includes any “owner” of “a facility.” “Facility” is defined to include “any site or area where a hazardous substance has been deposited, stored, disposed of, or placed, or otherwise come to be located.” Because arsenic and lead are hazardous substances that have “come to be located” on the landowners’ properties, the landowners are PRPs. Even “innocent landowners," whose land has been contaminated by another, and who are shielded from liability by section 107(b)(3), may fall within the broad definitions of PRPs in sections 107(a)(1)–(4). Interpreting PRPs to include property owners reflects the objective of a single EPA-led cleanup effort rather than thousands of competing efforts. The EPA policy of not suing innocent owners does not alter the landowners’ status as PRPs. View "Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian" on Justia Law

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The company wants to mine raw uranium ore from a site near Coles Hill, Virginia. Virginia law completely prohibits uranium mining. The company alleged that, under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) preempts state uranium mining laws like Virginia’s and makes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) the lone regulator. The district court, the Fourth Circuit, and the Supreme Court rejected the company’s argument.The AEA does not preempt Virginia’s law banning uranium mining; the law grants the NRC extensive and sometimes exclusive authority to regulate nearly every aspect of the nuclear fuel life cycle except mining, expressly stating that the NRC’s regulatory powers arise only “after [uranium’s] removal from its place of deposit in nature,” 42 U.S.C. 2092. If the federal government wants to control uranium mining on private land, it must purchase or seize the land by eminent domain and make it federal land, indicating that state authority remains untouched. Rejecting “field preemption: and “conflict preemption” arguments, the Court stated that the only thing a court can be sure of is what can be found in the law itself and the compromise that Congress actually struck in the AEA leaves mining regulation on private land to the states. View "Virginia Uranium, Inc. v. Warren" on Justia Law

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The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) set aside 104 million acres of federally-owned land for preservation, creating 10 new national parks, monuments, and preserves (units), 16 U.S.C. 3102(4). In establishing boundaries, Congress followed natural features rather than enclosing only federally-owned lands, sweeping in more than 18 million acres of state, Native, and private land, which could have become subject to many National Park Service rules, 54 U.S.C. 100751 (Organic Act). ANILCA Section 103(c) states that only “public lands,” defined as most federally-owned lands, waters, and associated interests, within any unit’s boundaries are “deemed” part of that unit and that no state, Native, or private lands “shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within units." The Service may “acquire such lands,” after which it may administer the land as public lands within units.Sturgeon traveled by hovercraft up the Nation River within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley Preserve unit. Park rangers informed him that the Service’s rules (36 CFR 2.17(e)) prohibit operating a hovercraft on navigable waters “located within [a park’s] boundaries.” That regulation, issued under the Service’s Organic Act authority, applies to parks nationwide without regard to the ownership of submerged lands, tidelands, or lowlands. The district court and the Ninth Circuit denied Sturgeon relief.A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The Nation River is not public land under ANILCA. Running waters cannot be owned; under the Submerged Lands Act, Alaska, not the United States, holds “title to and ownership" of the lands beneath navigable waters, 43 U.S.C. 1311. Even if the United States has an “interest” in the River under the reserved-water-rights doctrine, the River itself would not be “public land.” Section 103(c) exempts non-public lands, including waters, from Park Service regulations, which apply “solely” to public lands within the units. View "Sturgeon v. Frost" on Justia Law

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In 2001, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the dusky gopher frog as an endangered species, under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, 16 U.S.C. 1533(a)(1), which required the Service to designate the frog's “critical habitat.” The Service proposed designating a site in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana (Unit 1). The frog had once lived in Unit 1, but the land had long been used as a commercial timber plantation; no frogs had been spotted there for decades. The Service concluded that Unit 1 met the statutory definition of unoccupied critical habitat because of its rare, high-quality breeding ponds and distance from existing frog populations. The Service commissioned a report, which found that designation might bar future development, depriving the owners of up to $33.9 million, but concluded that the potential costs were not disproportionate to the conservation benefits and designated Unit 1 as critical habitat. The owners sued, contending that the closed-canopy timber plantation on Unit 1 could not be critical habitat for the frog, which lives in open-canopy forests. The district court and Fifth Circuit affirmed.The Supreme Court vacated. The decision not to exclude an area from critical habitat is subject to judicial review. An area is eligible for designation as critical habitat only if it is habitat for the species. Section 1533(a)(3)(A)(i), the sole source of authority for critical-habit designations, states that when the Secretary lists a species as endangered he must also “designate any habitat of such species which is then considered to be critical habitat.” Whether the frog could survive in Unit 1; whether habitat can include areas where the species could not currently survive; and whether the assessment of the costs and benefits of designation and resulting decision were arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion, must be addressed on remand. View "Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service" on Justia Law

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The river basin is formed by the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, which flow south through Georgia and converge at Lake Seminole, just north of Florida, where the Apalachicola River begins and flows south into the Gulf of Mexico. Florida sued, seeking a decree equitably apportioning the basin’s waters. The Supreme Court agreed to exercise its original jurisdiction and appointed a Special Master. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declined to waive sovereign immunity. The Master recommended that the Court dismiss Florida’s complaint, concluding that Florida did not present clear and convincing evidence that its injuries could be redressed by a decree capping Georgia’s upstream water consumption if the decree does not bind the Corps.The Supreme Court remanded, concluding that the Special Master applied too strict a standard. In interstate water disputes raising questions beyond the interpretation of an interstate compact's language, the doctrine of equitable apportionment applies. Equitable apportionment is flexible and requires consideration of physical and climatic conditions, the consumptive use of water in the several sections of the river, the character and rate of return flows, the extent of established uses, the availability of storage water, the practical effect of wasteful uses, and the damage to upstream areas as compared to the benefits to downstream areas if a limitation is imposed. Extensive, specific factual findings are essential. Until the Master makes the findings necessary to determine the nature and scope of likely harm caused by the absence of water and the amount of additional water necessary to ameliorate that harm significantly, Florida should not have to prove the details of a workable decree by “clear and convincing” evidence but only that, applying the principles of “flexibility” and “approximation,” it is likely to prove possible to fashion such a decree. At this stage and in light of certain assumptions, Florida made a sufficient showing that the extra water that would result from its proposed consumption cap would lead to increased streamflow in Florida’s Apalachicola River and significantly redress the economic and ecological harm that Florida has alleged. The United States has indicated that the Corps will cooperate. View "Florida v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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The Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1362, prohibits “any addition of any pollutant to navigable waters,” defined as “the waters of the United States.” Section 1311(a) contains exceptions, including permitting schemes under the EPA's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program and an Army Corps of Engineers program, which encompass the “waters of the United States.” The EPA and the Corps proffered the “Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule,” which “imposes no enforceable duty on any state, local, or tribal governments, or the private sector,” 80 Fed. Reg. 37102 and “does not establish any regulatory requirements.” Objectors challenged the Rule in district courts. Many filed “protective” petitions in Circuit Courts to preserve their challenges should their district court lawsuits be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction under 33 U.S.C. 1369(b), which enumerates EPA actions for which review lies directly and exclusively in the federal courts of appeals. Such actions include EPA actions “approving or promulgating any effluent limitation or other limitation under section 1311, 1312, 1316, or 1345,” and EPA actions “issuing or denying any permit under section 1342.” The Sixth Circuit denied motions to dismiss consolidated actions. The Supreme Court reversed. The Rule falls outside section 1369(b)(1), so challenges must be filed in district courts. It is not an “effluent limitation,” “on quantities, rates, and concentrations” of pollutants, nor is it an “other limitation under section 1311; it simply announces a regulatory definition. The Rule was promulgated under section 1361(a), which grants the EPA general rulemaking authority. The Rule neither issues nor denies NPDES permits under section 1342. View "National Association of Manufacturers. v. Department of Defense" on Justia Law

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Peat mining companies sought a Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1311(a), 1362, permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, to discharge material onto wetlands on property that they own and hope to mine. The Corps issued a jurisdictional designation (JD) stating that the property contained “waters of the United States” because its wetlands had a “significant nexus” to the Red River of the North, located 120 miles away. The district court dismissed their appeal for want of jurisdiction, holding that the JD was not a “final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy,” 5 U.S.C. 704. The Eighth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed. The Corps’ approved JD is a final agency action judicially reviewable under the Administrative Procedures Act. An approved JD clearly “mark[s] the consummation” of the Corps’ decision-making on whether particular property contains “waters of the United States.” It is issued after extensive fact-finding regarding the property’s physical and hydrological characteristics and typically remains valid for five years. The Corps describes approved JDs as “final agency action.” The definitive nature of approved JDs gives rise to “direct and appreciable legal consequences.” A “negative” creates a five-year safe harbor from governmental civil enforcement proceedings and limits the potential liability for violating the Act. An “affirmative” JD, like issued here, deprives property owners of the five-year safe harbor. Parties need not await enforcement proceedings before challenging final agency action where such proceedings carry the risk of “serious criminal and civil penalties.” The permitting process is costly and lengthy, and irrelevant to the finality of the approved JD and its suitability for judicial review. View "Army Corps of Eng'rs v. Hawkes Co." on Justia Law

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The Clean Air Act (CAA) directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants from stationary sources, such as refineries and factories, 42 U.S.C. 7412; it may regulate power plants under this program only if it concludes that “regulation is appropriate and necessary” after studying hazards to public health. EPA found power-plant regulation “appropriate” because power plant emissions pose risks to public health and the environment and because controls capable of reducing these emissions were available. It found regulation “necessary” because other CAA requirements did not eliminate those risks. EPA estimated that the cost of power plant regulation would be $9.6 billion a year, but that quantifiable benefits from the reduction in hazardous-air-pollutant emissions would be $4-$6 million a year. The D. C. Circuit upheld EPA’s refusal to consider costs. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded. EPA interpreted section 7412(n)(1)(A) unreasonably when it deemed cost irrelevant to the decision to regulate power plants. “’Appropriate and necessary’ is a capacious phrase.” It is not rational, nor “appropriate,” to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits. That other CAA provisions expressly mention cost indicates that section 7412(n)(1)(A)’s broad reference to appropriateness encompasses multiple relevant factors, including cost. The possibility of considering cost at a later stage, when deciding how much to regulate power plants, does not establish its irrelevance at the earlier stage. Although the CAA makes cost irrelevant to the initial decision to regulate sources other than power plants, the point of having a separate provision for power plants was to treat power plants differently. EPA must decide how to account for cost. View "Michigan v. Envtl. Prot. Agency" on Justia Law

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In 1943, Congress approved a Compact between Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado to apportion the “virgin water originating in” the Republican River Basin. In 1998, Kansas filed an original action in the Supreme Court contending that Nebraska’s increased groundwater pumping was subject to the Compact to the extent that it depleted stream flow in the Basin. The Court agreed. Negotiations resulted in a 2002 Settlement, which identified the Accounting Procedures by which the states would measure stream flow depletion, and thus consumption, due to groundwater pumping. The Settlement reaffirmed that “imported water,” brought into the Basin by human activity, would not count toward consumption. In 2007, Kansas claimed that Nebraska had exceeded its allocation. Nebraska responded that the Accounting Procedures improperly charged it for imported water and requested that the Accounting Procedures be modified. The Court appointed a Special Master, whose report concluded that Nebraska “knowingly failed” to comply, recommended that Nebraska disgorge part of its gains in addition to paying damages, and recommended denying an injunction and reforming the Accounting Procedures. The Supreme Court adopted the recommendations. Nebraska failed to establish adequate compliance mechanisms, given a known substantial risk that it would violate Kansas’s rights; Nebraska was warned each year that it had exceeded its allotment. Because of the higher value of water on Nebraska’s farmland than on Kansas’s, Nebraska could take Kansas’s water, pay damages, and still benefit. The disgorgement award is sufficient to deter future breaches. Kansas failed to demonstrate a “cognizable danger of recurrent violation” necessary to obtain an injunction. Amending the Accounting Procedures is necessary to prevent serious inaccuracies from distorting intended apportionment. View "Kansas v. Nebraska" on Justia Law