Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ninth Circuit NEPA Case Defines the Narrowness of Project Objectives

National Parks & Conservation Association v. Bureau of Land Management, 586 F.3d 735 (9th Cir. Nov. 10, 2009).

Kaiser Eagle Mountain, Inc. (“Kaiser”) sought to build a landfill on its former mining site near Joshua Tree National Park. Part of the plan involved the exchange of private lands for parcels surrounding the mine site, which were owned by the United States Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”). BLM, through the Interior Board of Land Appeals, obtained approval of the land exchange.

The plaintiffs challenged this decision in federal district court, and included claims that the decision violated of the Federal Land and Policy Management Act (“LPMA”) and National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). Specifically with regard to NEPA, the plaintiffs argued that the environmental analysis document, the Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”), was deficient because it had an unreasonably narrow objective through its “purpose and need” statement and therefore had an improperly narrow “reasonable range of alternatives” that failed to acknowledge the environmental impacts, thus violating the Act.

On the NEPA claim, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision, finding that the environmental review of the plan by BLM had proposed several alternatives but did not consider them in any detail because each failed to meet the narrowly drawn project objectives of meeting the operator's private needs. The court held that the Plaintiffs properly prevailed on the NEPA “purpose and need” and “reasonable range of alternatives” claims. The EIS failed to include specific discussion of introduction of nutrients into the desert environment. Thus, the EIS was correctly found inadequate on that issue.

This decision may play a role in persuasively advancing CEQA case law for evaluating the narrowness of project objectives and the reasonable range of alternatives. CEQA case law does not address this issue “on-point,” and thus this Ninth Circuit case from a project situated in the State of California could play an important role.