The California Court of Appeal last week reversed a lower court decision that would have indefinitely delayed the development by Newhall Land and Farming Company of 21,308 residential units, 629 acres of mixed use development, 67 acres of commercial use, 249 acres of business park, and 1,014 acres of open space in northwestern Los Angeles County over the next 25-30 years (“Project”).  The lower court’s decision had originally granted the Petition for Writ of Mandate brought by, among others, the Center for Biological Diversity (“Respondents”), challenging, among other actions by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (“DFW”) (“Appellant”), the revised Joint Federal/State Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report (“EIS/EIR”) for the Project.

While the Appellate Court’s 112 page decision addressed numerous causes of action brought by Respondents in the trial court, one of the most unique and far reaching was its disposition of Respondents’ claim that the EIS/EIR’s baseline for assessing the cumulative impacts of the Project’s Greenhouse Gas (“GHG”) emissions is a procedural issue properly evaluated under the “failure to proceed in a manner required by law” standard, applicable to procedural actions, and that, employing the correct standard, the EIS/EIR’s analysis was predicated on an illusory baseline.  In a decision that is likely to be adopted in the adjudication of other California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) actions challenging the evolving state and federal GHG standards, the Appellate Court firmly disagreed. 
 


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Responding to the concerns of pilots and the California Energy Commission (“CEC”) regarding the impact of exhaust plumes from power plants on overflying aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) Airport Obstruction Standard Committee (“AOSC”) completed a Supplement to FAA’s 2006 guidance [“Safety Risk Analysis of Aircraft Overflight of Industrial Exhaust Plumes”].  The purpose of the Supplement is to enhance current FAA regulations which only address standards for the physical height of the smoke stacks, and omit regulation of the impacts of the smoke plume emitted from the stacks, or the emissions contained in them. 

The Supplement is also aimed at obtaining definitive answers to the questions: (1) how much turbulence is created by exhaust plumes; (2) is this turbulence great enough to cause loss of pilot control; (3) if so, what size aircraft are impacted; (4) is there a lack of oxygen causing loss of engine power or danger to pilots/passengers; and, if so, (5) what is the harm to those pilots and passengers?

For two years, from 2008 to 2010, the AOSC conducted a Plume Report Study, which was ultimately determined to need further verification and validation.  In 2011, FAA retained the Federally funded Research and Development Center, operated by Mitre Corporation to answer the questions specified in the earlier Plume Report.  The Mitre Study was completed in September 2012 and verified both FAA’s model and what the earlier FAA reports and studies had concluded.
 


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On July 27, 2012, Los Angeles World Airports (“LAWA”) released the “Specific Plan Amendment Study Draft Environmental Impact Report” (“DEIR”), involving, among other things: (1) a realignment and extension of runways to the east on the North Airfield Complex, including a separation of the two north runways to permit their unimpeded use by the largest operating aircraft, A-380s and 747-800s (“Category VI”); (2) expansion and renovation of the terminals; and (3) associated movement and potential undergrounding of surrounding thoroughfares including Lincoln Boulevard.  Sides are already forming over the proposed plan. 


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Recent appellate cases have once again brought to the fore the critical importance of the “exhaustion of administrative remedies” for any potential challenger to an agency action based on noncompliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) and other laws meant to protect the environment and public.

In California, as example, public projects such as road construction, airport development, and power facilities, as well as private projects such as shopping centers are challenged on the basis of the failure to exhaust administrative remedies, or to present the alleged grounds of noncompliance “to the public agency orally or in writing . . . during the public comment period provided by this division or prior to the close of the public hearing . . .” Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21177.

All too often, individuals, environmental organizations and public agencies wait to make their decisions to challenge the analysis of a project’s environmental impacts until their frustration peaks, and the time for filing a legal challenge arrives. [The usual time for filing a CEQA challenge is very short – 30 days from the filing by the agency of its Notice of Determination (“NOD”) which marks the final agency action in the CEQA process. NEPA is normally 60 days from the signing of the Record of Decision (“ROD”).] By that time, however, it is too late, because “exhaustion of administrative remedies is a jurisdictional prerequisite to maintenance of a CEQA action.” Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control v. City of Bakersfield, 124 Cal.App.4th 1184, 1199 (2004).
 


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The California Supreme Court recently weighed in on the critical issue of the proper baseline to be used in assessing the environmental impacts of a proposed project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). [Agencies must use a “baseline” from which to determine whether a project’s environmental effects will be “significant.”]  In Communities For a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management District, et al., 48 Cal. App. 4th 310 (2010), ConocoPhillips Company argued that the proper baseline for environmental analysis of a project at a petroleum refinery employing existing equipment should be the maximum permitted operating capacity of the equipment, even if the equipment is operating below those levels at the time the environmental analysis is commenced. The Court rejected that argument, holding that the baseline for CEQA analysis must be the “existing physical conditions in the effected area” (i.e., “real conditions on the ground”), rather than the level of development or activity that “could” or “should” have been present according to a plan or regulation. This confirms the California CEQA Guidelines requirement that the baseline consist of the physical environmental conditions in the vicinity of the project as they exist at the time the notice of preparation of the EIR is published or at the time the environmental analysis begins. 14 Cal. Code Regs. §15125(a).
 
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The Government Accountability Office issued a report to the Chairman of the U.S House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure entitled "FAA Has Taken Steps to Determine That It Has Made Correct Medical Certification Decisions" on September 30, 2008.

In 2005, a joint investigation known as "Operation Safe Pilot" was conducted by the Department of Transportation Office