Environmental Litigation

Today the Supreme Court issued its order list from its February 15 Conference during which it considered whether to grant certiorari in two pending petitions regarding discharges of pollutants to groundwater that is hydrologically connected to surface water. The Court granted certiorari in County of Maui, HI v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, et al. only as to the question of “whether the CWA requires a permit when pollutants originate from a point source but are conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source, such as groundwater.”

The Court did not take action on the other pending petition regarding this issue in Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan. However, the Supreme Court has shown interest in the Upstate Forever case as well, asking the Solicitor General to file a brief expressing the views of the United States. The Solicitor General filed its brief on January 3, 2019 stating that Supreme Court review is warranted in the case but asking the Court to hold the petition in Upstate Forever until the Court’s disposition of the Count of Maui petition, which is the course the Supreme Court has now taken. For now, the Supreme Court will hear at least one case on this issue which is not unexpected given the Circuit split between the Fourth, Sixth, and Ninth Circuits.

On January 25, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in a unanimous decision, granted a petition for review in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC, No. 14-1271 (D.C. Cir., Jan. 25, 2019). The key holding in the case, which concerns the ongoing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing of the Klamath Hydroelectric Project, is that the States of California and Oregon waived their authorities under section 401 of the Clean Water Act (CWA), 33 U.S.C. § 1341, by failing to rule on the applicant’s submitted application for water quality certification within one year from when it was initially filed in 2006. The applicant for many years had followed, at the request of the States, the common industry practice of “withdraw-and-resubmit” of its water quality certification application in an attempt to annually reset the one-year time period for the States to act, as established under CWA section 401. The D.C. Circuit in Hoopa Valley Tribe invalidated this practice as a means of resetting the statutory clock, instead holding that the clear text of CWA establishes that “a full year is the absolute maximum” time for a state to decide on a water quality certification application. Continue Reading D.C. Circuit Strikes Down “Withdraw-and-Resubmit” Practice for State Water Quality Certifications

Troutman Sanders partners Douglas Henderson and Lindsey Mann and associate Nicholas Howell had an Insight piece published in Bloomberg Law titled, “Contamination ‘Issue’ Class Actions—Recent Certification Realities.”

In the article, the authors review the confusing outcomes and mistaken promise of environmental “issue” class actions under Rule 23(c). Two cases from 2018—involving virtually identical facts—reach fundamentally different conclusions on whether such “issue” classes are appropriate in environmental exposure cases.

The authors note: “[i]f the Behr-Dayton approach stands, claim-wide predominance and superiority become aspirational, rather than the requirements they were intended to be, so long as the ‘issue’ class will, in the court’s estimation, advance the litigation or push the parties to settle.” Based on the these cases, Henderson, Mann and Howell conclude Rule 23(c) “issue” class actions should not be interpreted to resuscitate flawed putative classes under Rule 23(b).

To read the entire article, click here.

The U.S. Supreme Court kicked off its new term on Oct. 1 with oral arguments in Weyerhaeuser Co. v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The case centers around whether and when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) can designate land unoccupied by a threatened or endangered species as critical habitat for that species under the Endangered Species Act.

Continue Reading High Court Unlikely to Solve Endangered Species Act Issues in Frog Habitat Case

On April 26, 2018, a North Carolina jury awarded 10 neighbors $51 million in the first North Carolina hog farming case to be heard before U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt.  Almost a week later on May 9, 2018, Judge Britt reduced the jury’s award of $23 million in punitive damages to nearly $3 million in punitive damages because of a North Carolina state law that limits punitive damages to $250,000-per-plaintiff.  This was the first case tried of 26 lawsuits brought by 500 neighbors complaining about hog operations in eastern North Carolina against Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.

Continue Reading Punitive Damages in North Carolina Hog Farm Cases Reduced

On June 11, 2018, the Supreme Court summarily affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Washington through a 4-4 split, with Justice Kennedy taking no part in the decision due to his involvement in similar cases during his time as a circuit judge on the Ninth Circuit.  The immediate effect of the high court’s decision will be to require the State of Washington to replace or modify, at the State’s expense, several hundred culverts placed in streams under roads and bridges throughout the State. In the longer run, however, the decision could have much more far-reaching impacts related to federal and state obligations to protect against habitat degradation of salmon and other aquatic species pursuant to their obligations under several Nineteenth Century treaties reached with Native American Tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Summarily Affirms Judgment of Ninth Circuit Decision on Pivotal Case Related to Tribal Treaty Fishing Rights

Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity, Water Keeper Alliance, and a coalition of other organizations served a Notice of Intent to Sue the U.S. EPA and Army Corps of Engineers (the “Agencies”), alleging the Agencies’ delay in implementing the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. (“WOTUS”) Rule violated the Endangered Species Act.

Continue Reading Environmental Groups Set to Challenge WOTUS Rule Delay under Endangered Species Act

On January 8, 2018, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument on the decision issued by Special Master Ralph Lancaster in the long-running dispute between Florida and Georgia over the fate of water use in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) Basin.  The Special Master sided with Georgia, less on the merits than for procedural reasons, finding that Florida had failed to meet its burden of showing how Florida’s proposed remedy of a consumption cap on Georgia would be effective to curb alleged excessive water use by Georgia due to control of impoundments on the Chattahoochee River by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“the Corps”), not a party to the suit.

Continue Reading Florida and Georgia Square Off In High Court; Mixed Signals from Justices

The GeoProfessional Business Association (GBA) – formerly known as ASFE – has released a new study on the standard of care for conducting Phase I environmental site assessments. This document is the fourth in a series of studies the organization has produced since the inception of the due diligence process in the early 1990’s. The study is an evaluation of approximately 200 Phase I reports from across the country, written between 2007 and 2010. The results of the study will be a valuable tool in determining whether a Phase I conducted during that time period meets the standard of care or not.

Continue Reading New Standard of Care Document on Environmental Due Diligence (“Phase I”) Process now available

The United States Supreme Court announced today that it will hear oral argument in the Florida v. Georgia lawsuit on January 8, 2018.  In that case, Florida sought to mandate a statewide water usage cap for Georgia but was held to have failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence that such a remedy would be effective where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a major manager of impoundments along the Chattahoochee River, was not a party to the lawsuit.  The lawsuit represents the most recent battle in the long-running “water wars” among the Southeastern states over the Apalachicola-Flint-Chattahoochee River Basin.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Takes Up Florida v. Georgia Lawsuit in January