5th Circuit stays focused, defers to FWS analysis of proposed rail effects on warblers and invertebrates
Medina County Environmental Action Association v. Surface Transportation Board, Case No. 09-60108 (5th. Cir., April 6, 2010)
ISSUE: Medina County Environmental Action Association (MCEAA) challenged an exemption given by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) allowing Southwest Gulf Railroad Co. to construct and operate a seven-mile rail line servicing a proposed limestone quarry in Medina County, Texas. MCEAA challenges the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service finding (reached during the Endangered Species Act's Section 7 consultation process) that the proposed rail and its cumulative effects were not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and certain endangered karst invertebrates.
KEITHINKING: Sometimes, driven by their opposition to a project and its environmental harms, advocates lose sight of the big picture. In this case, the 5th Circuit refused to get caught up in the environmental issues, focusing strictly on its standards of review, and the precise legal question before it. In an Environmental Impact Statement, the STB had concluded that Vulcan Construction Materials (the quarry developer) could (and would) transport the limestone by truck if the rail line were not built. That single fact determined the outcome of this case.
"These findings... which MCEAA does not seriously contest, highlight an important point that is easily lost in the technical and regulatory complexities of this case: Because the STB’s approval was not required for any other action associated with the proposed quarry, because no other aspect of the proposed quarry required approval under § 7, and because the quarry would go forward with or without the proposed rail, the implications of the STB’s decision were relatively narrow. The STB could grant the exemption, in which case development of the quarry would proceed with rail service; or deny the exemption, in which case quarry development would still proceed with service by truck—an alternative that all parties agree would be more environmentally invasive. This court’s sole task in evaluating the MCEAA’s petition is to determine whether the choice that STB made was arbitrary and capricious. 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A)."
Once the 5th Circuit established the limited nature of its review, deference was inevitable:
The complexities of the regulatory arguments on this issue also obscure a fundamental point: The STB has no authority to stop development of the quarry, which the evidence shows could and would be developed regardless of whether the rail line were built. The STB had two choices: Grant the exemption and allow the rail line—the environmentally preferable alternative—to go forward, or deny the exemption, in which case quarry development would progress, serviced by a more environmentally disruptive fleet of trucks. We cannot say that the STB abused its discretion in choosing the former.
Despite the important factual issues above, the 5th Circuit opinion is useful as precedent on three additional procedural points, including:
- Granting deference, pursuant to U.S. v. Mead, to the FWS’s Endangered Species Consultation Handbook as persuasive, and accepting FWS's definition of an “interrelated action” and “reasonably certain to occur.” See, Sierra Club. v. Marsh, 816 F.2d 1376, 1387 (9th Cir. 1987) (“The test for interrelatedness . . . is ‘but for’ causation: but for the roposed action these activities would not occur.”) citing 51 Fed. Reg. at 19,932; see also Gulf Restoration Network v. United States Department of Transportation, 452 F.3d 362 (5th Cir. 2006)(until final approval was granted on an application, there was “insufficient certainty about the facilities’ future construction and environmental consequences to include them in the cumulative impact calculus.”)
- Accepting an imperfect administrative record and (ironically) citing 9th Circuit case law in support:
- Narrowly construing administrative record review, and refusing to supplement the administrative record, citing D.C. Circuit case law:
Photo (and other descriptive information about the project) from Medina Rock and Rail. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo above is from a local competitor's similar project, see comment by Scoop below.