A recent Ninth Circuit decision offers guidance on evaluating connected actions and cumulative impacts under NEPA. The court held that an agency can defer consideration of an action’s cumulative impacts in an EIS when the agency makes clear that it intends to evaluate the cumulative impacts in a later EIS. The court also held that

The Ninth Circuit held that a 2012 Environmental Impact Statement that provided a programmatic-level analysis for management of lands in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve could also be used as the site-specific analysis for oil and gas lease sales. Northern Alaska Environmental Center v. U.S. Department of Interior, No.19-35008 (9th Cir., July 9, 2020).

On January 10, the White House Council on Environmental Quality published significant revisions to regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act, the first such overhaul since adoption of the regulations in 1978. The proposed rules are comprehensive and wide-ranging, and have significant ramifications for the extensive range of projects that are carried out by the

In the latest decision in the long-running legal saga over the proposed Newhall Ranch development in Los Angeles County, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the Army Corps of Engineers’ EIS and Section 404 permit, giving substantial deference to the Corps’ decisionmaking. Friends of the Santa Clara River v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 887 F.3d 906 (9th Cir. 2018).

Background

Newhall Ranch is a proposed large-scale master-planned community in Los Angeles County. The County approved a specific plan for the project that provided for more than 21,000 residential units and 4.4 million square feet of commercial, office, and retail uses. In connection with the project, Newhall Land and Farming Company applied to the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to discharge dredge or fill material into navigable waters. The Corps, along with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, prepared a combined EIS/EIR. The EIS/EIR considered eight project alternatives, including Newhall’s preferred alternative, a no-build alternative and six other alternatives.

The Corps issued a Record of Decision that adopted one of the studied alternatives (“Modified Alternative 3”) as the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative. Modified Alternative 3 involved developing less acreage than Newhall’s preferred alternative, at a higher cost per developable acre. The Corps also determined that wastewater and stormwater discharges from the project would not affect endangered steelhead in the Santa Clara River downstream from the project. Based on this “no effect” determination, the Corps did not consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service on impacts to endangered steelhead.

The plaintiffs claimed that the Corps’ decisions violated the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. First, the plaintiffs challenged the Corps’ selection of Modified Alternative 3 as the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative. Second, the plaintiffs challenged the Corps’ failure to consult with NMFS. Third, the plaintiffs argued that the EIS did not adequately analyze cumulative impacts on steelhead.
Continue Reading Federal Appeals Court Rejects Challenges to Newhall Ranch EIS and Section 404 Permit

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking regarding potential changes to the CEQ regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act. The proposed revisions to the CEQ regulations could potentially have far-reaching effects because NEPA requirements are largely defined in the regulations themselves, which have remained essentially unchanged for nearly

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the U.S. Forest Service could validly rely on proxy approaches in determining whether a forest restoration project would adversely impact pine marten and fisher populations in the project area. Alliance for Wild Rockies v. Pena, 865 F.3d 1211 (9th Cir. 2017).

The Alliance for the Wild

The Ninth Circuit rejected challenges to the Navy’s plans to construct a new nuclear missile maintenance facility. Although the court found that the Navy had violated NEPA by failing to adequately disclose information in the environmental impact statement, it held that these violations were harmless because they would not have improved public participation or changed the Navy’s decisionmaking. Ground Zero Center for Non-Violent Action v. U.S. Department of the Navy (9th Cir. No. 14-35086, June 27, 2017).

Background

The plaintiffs challenged the Navy’s plans to construct a new wharf for maintenance of nuclear missiles at Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor, Washington, alleging that the Navy had violated NEPA. The Navy had redacted three of the appendices to the EIS in their entirety on the ground that they contained sensitive information relating to nuclear material. During the litigation, however, in response to public records requests or as part of the administrative record, the Navy released significant information that had not been previously disclosed in the EIS. This included portions of the EIS appendices that had been redacted when the EIS was published. The new documents indicated that the Department of Defense Explosives Safety Board had rejected the proposed project because of concerns regarding the risk of an explosion. However, the Navy had received an exemption from the Secretary of the Navy allowing it to proceed with construction without conducting additional safety studies required by the Safety Board.

The plaintiffs argued that the Navy had violated NEPA by (1) redacting the portions of the EIS appendices that it later released publicly, (2) not adequately disclosing the project’s risks and the Safety Board’s disapproval, and (3) not evaluating reasonable alternatives in the EIS. The district court granted summary judgment for the Navy on the plaintiffs’ NEPA claims. The district court also sealed portions of the record that contained classified and controlled information that the Navy had inadvertently disclosed, and ordered the plaintiffs not to discuss or reference any of those documents in a court hearing and not to further disseminate those documents. The plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

NEPA Claims

First, the plaintiffs argued that the Navy violated NEPA by not disclosing the appendices when it published the EIS. NEPA requires that an agency disclose information, including appendices to an EIS, “to the fullest extent possible.” The Freedom of Information Act (which applies to NEPA), however, contains an exception for disclosing sensitive nuclear information if it “could reasonably be expected to have an adverse effect” on public safety or security. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs that the Navy violated NEPA by redacting the appendices in their entirety. The court explained that the Navy’s subsequent disclosure of portions of the appendices during the litigation indicated that material should have been disclosed in the EIS. The court concluded, however, that the Navy’s NEPA violation was harmless because the plaintiffs did not demonstrate that information in the appendices would have made a difference in the Navy’s decisionmaking or public participation.
Continue Reading NEPA Violations Did Not Undermine Validity of EIS for Nuclear Missile Maintenance Facility