R40441 - The Supreme Court Accepts Five Environmental Cases during its 2008-2009 Term
27-Feb-2009; Robert Meltz; 11 p.
Abstract: In the Supreme Court’s 2008-2009 term, which likely will conclude in late June, 2009, the Court has accepted for argument five environmental cases—an unusually large number out of the roughly 85 cases accepted for argument. This report reviews the cases, decided and undecided, and then briefly comments.
The one case of the five that is already decided is Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, holding that the national security interest in the Navy’s being able to conduct exercises using “mid-frequency active sonar” clearly outweighs the danger to whales from use of such sonar. In so deciding, the Court also invalidated the Ninth Circuit’s lax standard for the issuance of preliminary injunctions.
The four cases remaining to be decided are, first, Summers v. Earth Island Institute, raising the question whether a court’s awarding nationwide relief from the application of a rule is proper in the context of a site-specific challenge to the rule. Second, the case of Entergy Corp. v. Environmental Protection Agency addresses the Clean Water Act’s demand that EPA require the “best technology available” to minimize fish mortality from cooling water intake structures; the issue is whether that demand allows EPA to do cost-benefit analysis in deciding what technology to approve. Third, the case of Coeur Alaska, Inc. v. Alaska Conservation Group poses the issue whether a discharge prohibited by a Clean Water Act new source performance standard can still be allowed pursuant to a “fill” permit under the act. And fourth, the case of Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co. v. United States takes on two questions at the heart of the Superfund Act’s liability scheme: when is there a reasonable basis for apportioning liability for hazardoussubstance cleanup costs among responsible parties, in lieu of the joint and several liability that would otherwise apply, and when is a manufacturer liable for having arranged for the disposal of a hazardous substance even though disposal was not the primary purpose of the arrangement. Each of these cases has important implications for the particular program involved, and a few reach well beyond.
Industry views these five cases with optimism; the environmental community with apprehension.
A principal reason is that in all five cases, the environmental side won in the decision below.
Assuming the conventional wisdom that the Supreme Court does not take cases merely to affirm
the decision below, the environmental sweep in the lower appellate courts suggests decisions
going the other way in the Supreme Court. The one decision so far, in Winter v. Natural
Resources Defense Council, follows that prediction. [read report]