Justia U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Environmental Law

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Refined has owned the contaminated Beech Grove, Indiana lead smelter site since 1980 when it acquired it from NL. After years of litigation, Refined entered into a settlement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) in 1998. The 1998 Decree required Refined to close the site, pay a $210,000 fine, and remedy the contamination. EPA and IDEM agreed not to bring suit against Refined on some of their potential claims, effective immediately upon the entry of the Decree. In 2017, Refined sued NL to recoup some of the cleanup costs. The district court found that Refined’s claim was a “contribution action” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9613(f)(3)(B), subject to a three-year statute of limitations and dismissed the suit. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting Refined’s argument that its suit was a “cost-recovery” action under CERCLA section 9607(a), and timely under that subsection’s limitations period. The 1998 Decree qualified under section 9613(f)(3)(B), which creates a right to contribution for a party that has “resolved its liability to the United States or a State for some or all of a response action or for some or all of the costs of such action in an administrative or judicially approved settlement” and triggers the limitations period. View "Refined Metals Corp. v. NL Industries Inc." on Justia Law

Posted in: Environmental Law

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Valbruna purchased the steel mill at a 2004 bankruptcy auction and began cleanup efforts under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 42 U.S.C. 6901. In 2000, Slater, the site’s then-owner, had unsuccessfully sued Joslyn, which had owned and operated the site from 1928-1981, in state court seeking indemnification under the parties’ contract and costs under Indiana’s Environmental Legal Actions (ELA) statute. In 2010, Valbruna sued Joslyn under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9613(b), and ELA. Joslyn’s fault is undisputed. Joslyn raised claim-preclusion, statute-of-limitations, and contribution defenses. The district court found that the CERCLA claim was not precluded, but the ELA claim was, and that the suit was timely. The court imposed equitable contribution on Valbruna, requiring it to pay for 25% of past and future cleanup costs. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, agreeing that the CERCLA claim was not precluded. If there is no state-court jurisdiction to hear an exclusively federal claim, there is no claim preclusion. The claim was not barred as being filed more than six years after the start of “remedial action.” Slater’s earlier cleanup was “removal.” While the 25% imposition on a no-fault owner "reached the limits" of the court's discretion, there was no abuse of that discretion. Valbruna understood the site’s pollution problems before purchasing it and apparently paid far less than the asking price; the court was rationally concerned about a windfall for Valbruna. View "Valbruna Slater Steel Corp. v. Joslyn Manufacturing Co." on Justia Law

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In the 1990s, Boucher cut down nine trees on his family farm in Indiana. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) claimed that the tree removal converted several acres of wetlands into croplands, rendering the Bouchers’ entire farm ineligible for USDA benefits that would otherwise be available under the “Swampbuster” provisions in the Food Security Act of 1985, 16 U.S.C. 3801, 3821–24. The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court. The USDA repeatedly failed to follow applicable law and agency standards. It disregarded compelling evidence showing that the acreage in question never qualified as wetlands that could have been converted illegally into croplands and has shifted its explanations for treating the acreage as converted wetlands, so its actions qualify as arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion. The agency experts did not attribute the alteration of hydrology to the removal of the nine trees; the agency presented no evidence that the tree removal altered the wetland hydrology. The USDA failed to engage meaningfully with this point, ignoring a crucial factor under the agency’s interpretation of its regulation. View "Boucher v. United States Department of Agriculture" on Justia Law

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At its LASI site, Varlen plated locomotive engine parts in chrome. At its Silvis site, Varlen’s operations included refueling diesel engines. Varlen discovered groundwater contamination at both sites, spent millions of dollars in damages and remediation expenses, and sought indemnification from its insurer. Liberty Mutual denied coverage based on a policy exclusion for property damage arising out of chemical leaks or discharges. Varlen cited a policy provision stating that, despite the exclusion, Liberty would cover chemical leaks or discharges that were “sudden and accidental.” Varlen proffered the expert testimony of a geologist (Rogers) that the LASI contaminants were released because the concrete sump leaked and that the releases were “sudden and accidental” because they were not intended and occurred in sudden spurts when the sump failed. Rogers explained that he had experience working with sumps and had personal knowledge of these sumps in particular. Rogers testified that the Silvis releases were likely “sudden and accidental” because the contamination around the refueling area was too large to have occurred by minor leakage and was “consistent with overfills of diesel locomotives.” Rogers claimed that contamination at the chlorinated solvent storing area was “indicative of a drum overturning and suddenly leaking out.” The district court struck Rogers’s opinions as unreliable and speculative under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. To satisfy Daubert, Rogers needed to explain how the evidence led to his conclusions; Rogers failed to demonstrate that his conclusions were anything more than guesses. View "Varlen Corp. v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co." on Justia Law

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The Liebharts own three houses on a block in Watertown, Wisconsin. Part of the block was previously occupied by a factory, built in 1920 and last owned by SPX. The factory manufactured power transformers containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a carcinogenic chemical banned by the EPA in 1979. Studies revealed that the factory's concrete floor was generally contaminated. In 2014, SPX demolished the building with the assistance of the defendants. The Liebharts sued, alleging that dust and debris containing toxic chemicals migrated onto their properties, contaminating their yards and jeopardizing their health and the health of their tenants. Following discovery and the submission of expert witness reports, the district court granted the defendants summary judgment with costs. The Seventh Circuit vacated. Although the district court adequately evaluated the expert witnesses and did not abuse its discretion in its procedural decisions, the court set the bar unnecessarily high for the plaintiffs to show a violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), 42 U.S.C. 6901, and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), 15 U.S.C. 2601. RCRA requires only that harm “may” be imminent; similarly, TSCA does not impose a heightened standard. The parties should have another opportunity to litigate whether a substantial and imminent endangerment to health exists. View "Liebhart v. SPX Corp." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs purchased land near a former GE manufacturing plant that had operated in Morrison, Illinois for 60 years. The plant leached toxic chemicals that seeped into the groundwater. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency filed suit under state law against GE in 2004 and has been working with the company since then to investigate and develop a plan to address the contamination. In 2013, plaintiffs filed suit under the citizen suit provision of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 42 U.S.C. 6901, seeking a mandatory injunction ordering GE to conduct additional investigation into the scope of the contamination and ordering the company to remove the contamination. The district court found the company liable for the contamination on summary judgment but denied injunctive relief because, despite the many opportunities, plaintiffs did not offer evidence establishing a need for injunctive relief beyond what the company had already done in the state action. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The district court had the discretion to award injunctive relief under the RCRA but was not required to order relief after a finding of liability. Plaintiffs did not carry their burden to establish mandatory injunctive relief was necessary under the RCRA. View "Conway v. General Electric Co." on Justia Law

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In 2007, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) brought charges before the Pollution Control Board against EOR Energy and AET Environmental under the Illinois Environmental Protection Act, 415 ILCS 5/1–5/58, for transporting hazardous‐waste acid into Illinois, storing that waste, and then injecting it into EOR’s industrial wells. EOR unsuccessfully argued in state courts that the IEPA and the Board did not have jurisdiction over EOR’s acid dumping. EOR asserted that it was not injecting “waste” into its wells but was merely injecting an acid that was used to treat the wells and aid in petroleum extraction so that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources had exclusive jurisdiction under the Illinois Oil and Gas Act, 225 ILCS 725/1. EOR then sought a federal declaratory judgment. The district court dismissed the case, citing the Eleventh Amendment and issue preclusion. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, “emphatically” rejecting the “undisguised attempt to execute an end‐run around the state court’s decision.” View "EOR Energy, LLC v. Illinois Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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Mittelstadt’s Richland County, Wisconsin land was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), administered by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), from 1987-2006. CRP participants agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production in return for annual rental payments from the USDA. In 2006, the agency denied Mittelstadt’s application to re-enroll. After exhausting his administrative appeals, he sued under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. 701, and asserting a breach of contract. The district court entered judgment in favor of the agency. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Under the regulations governing the CRP, the USDA has broad discretion to evaluate offers of enrollment in the program on a competitive basis by considering the environmental benefits of a producer’s land relative to its costs. Given the agency’s wide latitude, the Farm Services Agency did not abuse its discretion when it denied re-enrollment of Mittelstadt’s land under a new definition of “mixed hardwoods.” Because he never entered a new contract with the agency, there was no breach of contract. View "Mittelstadt v. Perdue" on Justia Law

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Regional transmission organizations manage the interstate grid for electricity, conduct auctions through which many large generators of electricity sell most or all of their power, and are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Illinois subsidizes nuclear generation facilities by granting “zero emission credits,” which generators that use coal or gas to produce power must purchase from the recipients at a price set by the state. Electricity producers and municipalities sued, contending that the price‐adjustment aspect of the system is preempted by the Federal Power Act because it impinges on the FERC’s regulatory authority. They acknowledge that a state may levy a tax on carbon emissions; tax the assets and incomes of power producers; tax revenues to subsidize generators; or create a cap‐and‐trade system requiring every firm that emits carbon to buy credits from firms that emit less carbon. They argued that the zero‐emission‐credit system indirectly regulates the auction by using average auction prices as a component in a formula that affects the credits' cost. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants. Illinois has not engaged in discrimination beyond that required to regulate within its borders. All Illinois carbon‐emitting plants need to buy credits. The subsidy’s recipients are in Illinois. The price effect of the statute is felt wherever the power is used. All power (from inside and outside Illinois) goes for the same price in an interstate auction. The cross‐subsidy among producers may injure investors in carbon‐ releasing plants, but only plants in Illinois. View "Village of Old Mill Creek v. Star" on Justia Law

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In 1995, Orchard purchased the Warmke Parcel, 13 acres of wetlands, for residential development. Orchard requested a determination from the Army Corps of Engineers that the wetlands were not jurisdictional “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1251(a). Before 2015, the Corps defined waters of the United States to include waters “subject to the ebb and flow of the tide,” “rivers” that could be used for interstate recreation or commerce, “tributaries” of such waters, and “wetlands adjacent to” other waters of the United States, including tributaries. The Warmke wetlands are surrounded by residential development. The closest navigable water, Little Calumet River, is 11 miles away. In between the Warmke wetlands and Little Calumet River are man‐made ditches, sewer pipes, and Midlothian Creek—a tributary of the Little Calumet River. The Warmke wetlands drain, via sewer pipes, to Midlothian Creek. While the Warmke issue was pending, the Supreme Court decided that a wetland’s adjacency to a tributary of a navigable‐in‐fact water is alone insufficient to make the wetland a water of the United States, “the Corps’ jurisdiction over [such] wetlands depends upon the existence of a significant nexus between the wetlands in question and navigable waters in the traditional sense.” The Seventh Circuit reversed the Corps’ claim of jurisdiction, finding that the Corps has not provided substantial evidence of a significant nexus to navigable‐in‐fact waters. View "Orchard Hill Building Co. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers" on Justia Law