Friday, December 4, 2009

South Fork Band Council v. U.S. Department of Interior

Dec 3: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, Case No. 09-15230. This is an appeal from the denial of a preliminary injunction in an environmental challenge to a major gold mining project on the side of Mt. Tenabo in Nevada. The mountain has religious significance for Indian tribes. The plaintiffs-appellants are the South Fork Band Council of Western Shoshone of Nevada, and other tribes and organizations (the Tribes).

The Tribes originally filed this action against the United States Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Land Management (BLM) after BLM issued its final environmental impact statement approving the project. The project’s developer, Barrick Cortez, Inc., (Cortez) appeared as an intervenor and is also an appellee. The Appeals Court denied the Tribes’ emergency motion for an injunction pending appeal, but expedited the briefing and argument of the appeal.

The district court’s opinion devotes most of its consideration to claims brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Those claims were not pursued on appeal. Instead, the claims allege violations of the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In determining whether a preliminary injunction should issue, the Appeals Court said it is bound by the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Winter v. Natural Res. Def. Council, 129 S. Ct. 365 (2008) [See WIMS 11/12/08].

The Appeals Court said it "must decide whether the Tribes have shown that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their claims; that they are likely to suffer irreparable harm if a preliminary injunction is denied; that the balance of the equities tips in their favor; and that an injunction is in the public interest. . . The Tribes must make each of these showings to be entitled to injunctive relief. . . To succeed on the merits of their action under the Administrative Procedure Act, the Tribes must show that BLM’s action was arbitrary and capricious or contrary to law. . ."

The Appeals Court ruled, "Given the thorough consideration of the project’s impact on the Tribes religion in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which was approved after more than two years of study and consultation with the Tribes and with the public, we conclude that the Tribes have not satisfied their burden of showing a likelihood of success on the merits of their FLPMA claims. We reverse the denial of injunctive relief on the NEPA claims, however, and remand for the entry of an injunction pending preparation of an EIS that adequately considers the environmental impact of the extraction of millions of tons of refractory ore, mitigation of the adverse impact on local springs and streams, and the extent of fine particulate emissions."

Further, the Appeals Court said, "The likelihood of irreparable environmental injury without adequate study of the adverse effects and possible mitigation is high. Indeed the district court did not question the irreparable environmental harm threatened by this massive project, and that will be visited most directly on the plaintiffs. The resulting hardship asserted by Cortez and the government is cast principally in economic terms of employment loss, but that may for the most part be temporary. Given the narrow scope of our holding, which rejects the broader FLPMA contentions, the balance of hardship favors the appellants. As to the public interest, Congress’s determination in enacting NEPA was that the public interest requires careful consideration of environmental impacts before major federal projects may go forward. Suspending a project until that consideration has occurred thus comports with the public interest."

Access the complete opinion (click here).

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