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frog-300x225Our latest environmental case law update covers the first six months of 2017, and it briefly reviews what we believe are the most significant environmental and administrative law decisions issued by the federal courts and selected state appellate courts. Although the U.S. Supreme Court’s environmental law docket is unusually small in numbers, the Court continues to issue important rulings that will eventually have an impact on future environmental law disputes.

The first six months of 2017 have seen the federal courts issue important rulings in Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Superfund matters, with more Endangered Species Act decisions being made every year. The state appellate courts continue to grapple with fundamental state law questions, with significant climate change decisions being made with some frequency.

Photo:  U.S. Department of Agriculture – Dusky Gopher Frog-a  – Creative Commons

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Only a few existing federal environmental rules have been set aside or overturned by the new Administration, and these actions were taken by the Congress in accordance with the special procedures of the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The repeal, rescission, postponement, or modification of existing rules generally must be accomplished in accordance with the procedures of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). However, some rules which were promulgated but not effective by January 20, 2017 were delayed, consistent with established policy, to give the Administration sufficient time to review the new rules they will be charged with implementing.

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blockchain_icon-300x300The real estate industry is frequently identified as one of the most likely early adopters of blockchain technology and smart contracts. However, industry participants remain skeptical as to the timing and magnitude of the expected changes. That is understandable given the close association of blockchain technology with bitcoin controversies, other virtual currencies and some questionable crowdfunding ventures. Moreover, it is an emerging technology that includes confusing public, private and hybrid versions and involves imprecise terminology and standards. And smart contracts, which pre-date bitcoin, are still misunderstood and mistrusted.

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In the case of Kokesh v. SEC, decided on June 5, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court held that the 28 U.S.C. § 2462, which apples to “any action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise,” also applies to Security Exchange Commission (SEC) actions alleging claims for disgorgement imposed as a sanction for violating a federal securities law. At issue is Sections 2462’s five-year statute of limitations. A few years ago, in Gabelli v. SEC, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Section 2462 applies when the SEC seeks statutory monetary penalties. Both decisions may have application to other federal agency enforcement actions where the governing statute does not contain a specific statute of limitations period.

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On May 30, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit decided the case of Environmental Integrity Project, et al. v. EPA. Affirming the District Court, the Court of Appeals held that Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) trumps Clean Water Act Section 308’s authorization to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to disclose to the public certain commercial and financial information EPA had obtained from powerplant operators.

Reviewing the text of both FOIA and the CWA, the Court of Appeals notes that Exemption 4 was enacted in 1967, or a few years before the CWA was enacted and concludes that FOIA’s exemptions, being part of the Administrative Procedure Act, cannot be supplanted by later-enacted legislation that does not expressly revoke that exemption.

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Seeking regulatory relief from even an exotic statute like the the Commodity Exchange Act requires adherence to the relevant provisions of the law. Failure to comply with, for example, a provision governing timely pursuing a claim may be cause for denial of relief even for otherwise meritorious claims.

On May 25, a matter that was argued on May 18, was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in The Conway Family Trust v. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. This is another statute of limitations case involving on this occasion the Commodity Exchange Act. The Court of Appeals, which affirmed the CFTC’s ruling, and in doing so also held that the Trust failed to establish that the two-year statute of limitations should be equitably tolled.

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In an interesting decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on May 22, the District Court again held that metro-300x200a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) must be provided by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Maryland and local District of Columbia public transit officials regarding the planned expansion of the “Purple Line Project” into Maryland. The District Court considered whether FTA’s action was arbitrary and capricious, i.e., if it “relied on factors which Congress has not intended it to consider, entirely failed to consider an important aspect of  the problem, offered an explanation for a decision that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the  product of agency expertise.” The case is Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, et al., v. FTA. Continue reading

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Many large and complicated construction projects require the issuance of several differed permits having different requirements. Courts strive to interpret their requirements in a rational and reasonable manner.

On May 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit decided the case of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, et al. v. FERC. This case involves three federal statutes: the Natural Gas Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 717 et seq. (NGA), the Clean Water Act,  formally titled the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, 33 U.S.C. §§ 1251 et seq. (CWA); and the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321 et seq. (NEPA). Although the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) administers only the NGA, all three statutes applied to FERC’s issuance of a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (Certificate Order) conditionally approving the construction and operation of the proposed Leidy Project. This project is an expansion of the capacity of Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Company, LLC’s (Transco) existing natural gas pipeline and addition of new facilities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (the Leidy Project). FERC issued the Certificate Order prior to Transco obtaining a Section 401 of the CWA water quality certification from Pennsylvania (the state in which the discharge would originate).

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In Ouachita Watch League, et al., v. U.S. Forest Service, et al., decided May 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction an appeal of the District Court’s ruling that the plaintiff environmental groups could not obtain injunctive relief to stop further mineral leasing in the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas. It reasoned that insofar as the organizational plaintiffs relied on the generalized affidavit of the President of the Ozark Society to establish standing,  the affidavit fails to allege that a “particular member has a specific plan to use that forest” and consequently “there is no case or controversy before us, and we lack authority to adjudicate this dispute.”

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la densityAs Los Angeles continues to struggle with lagging development pace as compared to the national pace of housing creation, communities across the city grapple with the potential implications of permitting increased density. The dueling priorities of providing much-needed housing in one of the nation’s fastest-growing markets and maintaining neighborhood history and character continue to square off as the city assesses development across its many communities.

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