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Ohio Valley Environmental v. U.S. Army Corps, No. 12-1999

Decided: May 15, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

Four Environmental groups (collectively, the “Environmentalists”) commenced this action, against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the “Corps”), in connection with a proposed surface coal mine adjacent to a stream known as Reylas Fork. The action stemmed from the Corps issuance of a fill permit under CWA § 404, authorizing the mining company to place rock overburden into the adjacent valley of Reylas Fork as part of the mining process. Finding that the fill would not have a substantial cumulative impact on the water quality in the relevant watershed, the Corps issued the permit without issuing an accompanying environmental impact statement (“EIS”). Under the EPA guidelines, the Corps could only issue a § 404 permit after concluding that the mining activity would not cause or contribute to violations of the State’s water-quality standards. The National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) generally requires federal agencies to prepare an EIS for major federal actions that significantly affect the quality of the human environment. However, in this instance, the Corps found that the proposed mine would have no significant impact. Thus, the Corps did not issue an EIS with its conclusion. Before the district court, the Environmentalists proposed two arguments. First contending that the Corps “materially misapprehended” the baseline conditions in the relevant watershed, thus corrupting its analysis of the cumulative impact that the mine would have on the streams in the watershed. Second, the Environmentalists alleged that the Corps acted arbitrarily and capriciously in determining that the valley fill would not have a significant cumulative impact on the water quality in the relevant watershed. Ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the district court found in favor of the Corps on both claims.  This appeal followed.

The Fourth Circuit first addressed the Environmentalists claim that the Corps “materially misapprehended” the baseline conditions of the relevant watershed in its analysis. Affirming the district court’s decision, the court found that the Corps considered the relevant data about baseline conditions and properly assessed them as evidenced by the fact that the Corps (1) analyzed the conditions at the fill site itself; and (2) recognized and analyzed the impaired conditions of the streams in the relevant watershed. According to the court, the Corps conclusion was a contextual judgment made after considering relevant data from both the impact site and the entire watershed. Next, the court addressed the Environmentalists contention that the Corps acted arbitrarily and capriciously in concluding that the cumulative effect of the proposed mine would be insignificant and the Corps failed to take a “hard look” at potential environmental consequences because the decision document was “not supported by any reasoned analysis of, or expert opinion about, the science on conductivity and stream impairment.” Once again affirming the district court, the Fourth Circuit found that the Corps grappled with the issue extensively, rationally finding that (1) the connection between conductivity and stream impairment was not strong enough to preclude a permit and (2) the compromise measures agreed to by the EPA and the mining company would successfully mitigate the potential for adverse effects. In so holding, the court noted that the Corps judgment in this case was based on facts and recommendations, adduced during a lengthy consultation between the Corps, the mining company, the EPA, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Thus, the Corps decision-making process satisfied the NEPA’s “hard look” procedural requirement.

Full Opinion

-W. Ryan Nichols