Jump to Navigation
Jump to Content

Sierra Club v. Penfold

Citation: 17 ELR 21061
No. No. A86-083, 659 F. Supp. 965/(D. Alaska, 05/14/1987) Ruling on cumulative impacts

The court holds that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) must prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) addressing the cumulative impacts of placer mining operations that contribute incrementally to siltation and other environmental degradation in a national wild river watershed. Twenty-three placer mining operations in the watershed of Birch Creek, a component of the National Wild and Scenic River system, occupy more than five acres and require BLM approval of their plan of operations prior to commencing operations; the need for federal approval thus brings the mines within the mandates of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). More than 30 other mines fall below the five-acre threshold and require only the filing of a notice with the BLM. The court first holds that the cumulative impacts of the 60 or more placer mines in the watershed require a unified analysis under NEPA. Although the individual mining operations are not functionally or economically interdependent, the sedimentation levels on the river below the mining operations are significantly above the levels above the mines, such that the state water quality standards are exceeded by two orders of magnitude. The court also holds that the cumulative impacts are "significant" within the meaning of NEPA. The court holds that an EIS prepared by the BLM in 1984 as part of its review of a national conservation area that encompasses part of the Birch Creek watershed does not satisfy the BLM's mandate to address the cumulative impacts of the placer mining operations. Only 9 of the 60 mines in question are located within the national conservation area, and the 1984 EIS did not focus on the cumulative impacts of Birch Creek placer mining.

The court holds that plaintiffs' claim is ripe for judicial review. Plaintiffs are challenging a longstanding, uniform BLM policy of approving individual placer mining operations that are larger than five acres without assessing the mines' cumulative impacts, a policy that can constitute reviewable final agency action. Moreover, denial of judicial relief would work a hardship on plaintiffs, since to obtain administrative relief plaintiffs would have to appeal each individual mine approval in the watershed. The court then holds that the BLM must prepare an EIS on the mines' cumulative impacts. Although the usual procedure is for the court to remand the matter to the agency for a determination of whether an EIS is necessary, remand is not appropriate where the record makes it clear that an EIS must be prepared. Finally, the court holds that the equities fall in favor of postponing the issuance of an injunction until October 1987. Although the public interest will suffer in the event of further degradation of a national wild river, the economic impacts on the miners of enjoining mining immediately could be severe.

[A related decision in this case appears at 17 ELR 21058.]

Counsel are listed at 17 ELR 21058.