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Sierra Club v. Penfold

Citation: 19 ELR 20207
No. Nos. 87-3597 et al., 857 F.2d 1307/(9th Cir., 09/21/1988, 10/21/2088) District court decisions aff'd

In four consolidated appeals, the court holds that the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM's) review of placer mines disturbing less than five acres of public lands per year is not a major federal action under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), plaintiffs' challenges under NEPA and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) concerning mining operations that disturb more than five acres are not ripe for review, and the district court did not abuse its discretion in enjoining mining in four watersheds until BLM prepares an environmental impact statement (EIS) analyzing cumulative impacts. BLM divided mining operations into three categories for regulatory purposes: mines causing a cumulative surface disturbance of more than five acres per year, which require a plan of operations approved by BLM (plan mines); mines causing a disturbance of less than five acres per year, which require that the mine operator provide notice to BLM of the claim and proposed activities (notice mines); and mines resulting in negligible disturbance of federal lands, which require no notice or approval (casual use mines).

Addressing the appeals separately, the court first holds that the district court did not err in determining issues additional to those indicated in a remand order from this court and that it has jurisdiction to review both the issue originally presented and the additional issues. The court then holds that BLM's processing of notice mines [19 ELR 20208] is not major federal action requiring preparation of NEPA environmental assessments (EAs) and ANILCA subsistence evaluations on every proposed notice mine. Notice mine operators do not receive federal funding, and BLM's method of approval of notice mines is discretionary. The agency's regulatory obligation to monitor compliance with statutory requirements to deter undue degradation of public lands and its right to issue notices of noncompliance are insufficient to elevate notice mine approvals to the status of major federal action under NEPA. The court holds that the district court did not err in holding that the six-year statute of limitations in 28 U.S.C. § 2401 applies to plaintiffs' procedural challenges to the 1980 notice mine rulemaking. Although neither NEPA nor the Administrative Procedure Act contains a specific statute of limitations, § 2401 applies to all civil actions against the United States. The court holds that the procedural claims, which appeared in plaintiffs' second amended complaint, do not relate back to plaintiffs' original complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c). The amendments do not merely allege a different theory of recovery, but rather allege a new claim for relief, since the original complaint focused on BLM's policies and practices in applying the mining regulations and the amended complaint challenged the regulations' validity. The court holds that the district court, which found the 1983 extension of the notice mining regulation to be invalid, properly balanced competing and conflicting interests when it deferred the effective date of invalidation.

Turning to the second appeal, which challenged the adequacy of BLM's EAs and subsistence evaluations for plan mines, the court holds that plaintiffs' motion to compel compliance with a settlement stipulation between plaintiffs and BLM is moot. The stipulation applied only to the preparation of EAs and subsistence evaluations during the 1986 plan mining season and expired by its own terms shortly after plaintiffs' motion was filed. The court rejects plaintiffs' argument that effective relief can still be rendered in the form of reclamation at the 1986 plan mine sites, since ordering compliance with a stipulation that promised that the EAs and subsistence evaluations would be prepared in accordance with NEPA and ANILCA would not result in reclamation. The court holds that plaintiffs are not entitled as a matter of law to have the court order BLM to conform future EAs and subsistence evaluations to the requirements of NEPA and ANILCA, and thus plaintiffs' 1986 challenge to the post-1986 adequacy of EAs and subsistence evaluations for plan mines is not ripe for review. The record does not indicate what BLM's policy will be in future years, and the court cannot assume that because an EA was inadequate in the past, BLM will continue to violate NEPA.

The court turns to the third and fourth appeals, which addressed the cumulative impact of placer plan mines in four Alaska watersheds. In the third appeal, the court holds that the district court properly required BLM to evaluate in an EIS the cumulative impacts and the effect on subsistence uses of placer mining in the watersheds. Although individual miners may question whether their operations adversely affect the environment, scientific studies by federal and state agencies indicate otherwise. The court holds that the district court did not abuse its discretion in enjoining approval of additional plan mines until the cumulative impacts were assessed, since the record indicates that the cumulative effects had been shown to have occurred. In the last appeal, the court holds that the district court did not abuse its discretion in retaining jurisdiction to review the adequacy of the EIS. The adequacy of the ordinary administrative remedy is questionable, since it would require plaintiffs to challenge the cumulative studies on a mine-by-mine basis. Moreover, the district court ordered BLM to consider cumulative impacts in a context broader than an individual mining operations plan.

[The district court's decisions are published at 17 ELR 21058, 21061, 21254, 21257; and 18 ELR 20463.]

Counsel for Plaintiffs-Appellants/Cross-Appellees
Philip S. Barnett
Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Inc.
419 Sixth St., Ste. 321, Juneau AK 99801
(907) 586-2751

Counsel for Defendants-Appellees/Cross-Appellants
Blake A. Watson
Land and Natural Resources Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-2772

Before Goodwin and Brunetti, JJ.