Monday, May 12, 2008

Sierra Club v. Flowers (Army Corps)

May 9: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit, Case No. 07-13297. Sierra Club brought the action against the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) after the Corps granted Rinker Materials and other mining concerns (Miners) Clean Water Act (CWA) permits. The Miners sought to extract high-quality limestone from the “Lake Belt” area -- a stretch of 60,000 acres of wetlands between the Florida Everglades and the northwest edge of metropolitan Miami. To mine the Lake Belt wetlands, however, the Miners had to first secure CWA permits from the Corps. The Corps, in reviewing whether to issue permits, had to follow procedures required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Endangered Species Act (ESA), and CWA. After the Corps granted the permits, Sierra Club brought suit, alleging that in granting the permits the Corps performed its NEPA, ESA, and CWA duties arbitrarily and capriciously in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The Miners intervened as defendants, and all parties moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the Appellees’ motion
and found that, for numerous reasons, the Miners’ permits were due to be vacated.

The Appeals Court said, "After reviewing the voluminous record, reading the parties’ briefs, and having the benefit of oral argument, we vacate the district court’s grant of summary judgment and remand this case to the district court to apply the proper APA standard of review to the Corps’s environmental analysis." A two Justice majority ruled further, "The district court seems to have predetermined the answer to the ultimate issue, concluding that the Corps should not permit mining in the Lake Belt, and analyzed the permitting process with that answer in mind. . . In other words, no matter what the Corps concluded, and no matter what evidence supported that conclusion, the court would have banned mining because of its own conclusion that mining in the Lake Belt is a bad thing. . . The discretion to grant or deny CWA permits, however, is first given to federal agencies, not federal courts. Again, we offer no opinion as to whether the Corps complied with NEPA or the CWA during the permitting process. We instead remand to the district court to answer those questions in the first instance, applying the proper standard of review. The APA-CWA judgment, the APA-NEPA judgment, and the Remedies Order are vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."

A concurring in part and dissenting in part opinion, the minority Justice said, "Although I agree with much of the majority’s opinion, I must respectfully dissent from its judgment. Specifically, I agree that we have jurisdiction, that the Endangered Species Act claim was mooted, and that the district court’s NEPA analysis was erroneous. But I would affirm the district court’s disposition of the Clean Water Act claim, as well as its remedial decisions. . . I believe the district court correctly determined that the Corps violated the Clean Water Act in the permitting process, I would affirm on that basis the district court’s judgment vacating the permits. . . Although the district court made some misstatements of law in its CWA analysis, I believe they are harmless error and that the record contains a sufficient basis to affirm the judgment. . ."

Access the complete opinion (
click here).