Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Environmental Law
Williams Alaska Petroleum, Inc. v. State of Alaska
In this case, the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska upheld a lower court's decision that Williams Alaska Petroleum, Inc. and The Williams Companies, Inc. (collectively, "Williams") were strictly liable for the release of hazardous substances at a North Pole refinery they previously owned and operated. The substances, including sulfolane, a purifying solvent, had contaminated local groundwater. The court also upheld the ruling that Williams was responsible for paying damages to the State of Alaska and making contributions to the current owner, Flint Hills Resources, for its remediation costs.The court rejected Williams's claims that sulfolane was not a hazardous substance under state law. It also rejected the argument that the company's due process rights were violated because, it argued, it did not have fair notice that its conduct was prohibited. The court further denied Williams's argument that the imposition of retroactive liability for past releases constituted an unconstitutional taking of property.In addition, the court determined that Williams had retained liability for offsite sulfolane releases when it sold the refinery to Flint Hills. It also found that Flint Hills could seek statutory contribution from Williams for certain costs related to the contamination. However, the court remanded the grant of injunctive relief for more specificity as required by rule. Williams was ordered to pay damages for loss of access to groundwater due to sulfolane contamination, and for the costs of response, containment, removal, or remedial action incurred by the state. View "Williams Alaska Petroleum, Inc. v. State of Alaska" on Justia Law
Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund v. Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game, et al.
A nonprofit entity representing commercial fishers sued the Alaska Board of Fisheries and the Department of Fish and Game, alleging that the State’s fishery management practices in Cook Inlet were unjustified and violated federal law and national standards. The nonprofit sought to depose two current Fish and Game employees but the State opposed, arguing that all material facts necessary for a decision of the case were in the administrative record. The superior court agreed with the State and quashed the nonprofit’s deposition notices. The court also granted summary judgment in favor of the State, deciding that the Cook Inlet fishery was not governed by federal standards and that none of the nonprofit’s disagreements with the State’s fishery management practices stated a violation of statute or regulation. The nonprofit appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court judgment. View "Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund v. Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game, et al." on Justia Law
Sagoonick, et al. v. Alaska, et al.
A number of young Alaskans — including several Alaska Natives — sued the State, alleging that its resource development was contributing to climate change and adversely affecting their lives. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief based on allegations that the State had, through existing policies and past actions, violated both the constitutional natural resources provisions and their individual constitutional rights. The superior court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that the injunctive relief claims presented non-justiciable political questions better left to the other branches of government and that the declaratory relief claims should, as a matter of judicial prudence, be left for actual controversies arising from specific actions by Alaska’s legislative and executive branches. The young Alaskans appealed, raising compelling concerns about climate change, resource development, and Alaska’s future. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court correctly dismissed their lawsuit. View "Sagoonick, et al. v. Alaska, et al." on Justia Law
Scudero Jr. v. Alaska
A member of the Metlakatla Indian Community was convicted of several commercial fishing violations in State waters and fined $20,000. He appealed his conviction and sentence to the court of appeals, which asked the Alaska Supreme Court to take jurisdiction of the appeal because of the importance of the primary issue involved: whether the defendant’s aboriginal and treaty-based fishing rights exempted him from State commercial fishing regulations. The defendant also challenged several evidentiary rulings and the fairness of his sentence. Because the Supreme Court held the State had authority to regulate fishing in State waters in the interests of conservation regardless of the defendant’s claimed fishing rights, and because the Court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its procedural rulings, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. The Court also affirmed the sentence as not clearly mistaken, except for one detail on which the parties agreed: the district court was mistaken to include a probationary term in the sentence. The case was remanded for modification of the judgments to correct that mistake. View "Scudero Jr. v. Alaska" on Justia Law
Mallott v. Stand for Salmon
The Lieutenant Governor of Alaska declined to certify a proposed ballot initiative that would establish a permitting requirement for activities that could harm anadromous fish habitat, reasoning that the initiative effected an appropriation of state assets in violation of article XI, section 7 of the Alaska Constitution. The initiative sponsors filed suit, and the superior court approved the initiative, concluding that the proposal would not impermissibly restrict legislative discretion. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the initiative would encroach on the discretion over allocation decisions delegated to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game by the legislature, and that the initiative as written effected an unconstitutional appropriation. But the Court concluded the offending sections could be severed from the remainder of the initiative. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the superior court and remanded for that court to direct the Lieutenant Governor to sever the offending provisions but place the remainder of the initiative on the ballot. View "Mallott v. Stand for Salmon" on Justia Law
Manning v. Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game
This appeal was one in a series of successive appeals brought by Kenneth Manning challenging the moose and caribou subsistence hunt regulations that governed a portion of southcentral Alaska. Manning filed this lawsuit in 2013 challenging the eligibility criteria for subsistence hunt permits, the point system for allocating Tier II subsistence permits, and the criteria for establishing nonsubsistence hunting areas. While these claims were pending, the Alaska Supreme Court issued a 2015 decision resolving similar claims brought by Manning in an earlier suit. Manning then moved to amend his complaint in this case and to add an individual official as a defendant. The superior court denied both motions, concluding that amendment would be futile because all of Manning’s claims would fail under Supreme Court precedent. The superior court also denied the State’s motion for attorney’s fees, concluding that Manning was exempt from an adverse attorney’s fees award under the constitutional litigant exception. Manning appealed the denial of his motion to amend; he also raised various allegations of deprivation of due process. The State cross-appeals the denial of its motion for attorney’s fees. The Supreme Court affirmed the denial of the motion to amend because Manning failed to adequately brief (thus forfeiting) his arguments on some of the counts, and the remaining counts would have been futile. And the Court affirmed the denial of attorney’s fees to the State because none of Manning’s claims were frivolous. View "Manning v. Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game" on Justia Law
Alaska Miners Association v. Holman
This appeal involved an attorney’s fees dispute following a superior court decision upholding Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell’s certification of the “Bristol Bay Forever” ballot initiative. The initiative was approved to be placed on the November 2014 ballot. It required additional legislative approval for “a large-scale metallic sulfide mining operation located within the watershed of the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve.” Richard Hughes, Alaska Miners Association, and Council of Alaska Producers (Hughes plaintiffs) challenged the certification of the initiative. It was undisputed that this initiative, if passed, would impact the Pebble Project, a potential large-scale mining project in the Bristol Bay region. The initiative’s sponsors, John Holman, Mark Niver, and Christina Salmon (Holman intervenors), intervened on Alaska's side, and the State and intervenors moved for summary judgment to establish the legality of the initiative. The superior court granted the State’s and the Holman intervenors’ motions for summary judgment. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed on the merits. The Holman intervenors then moved for full reasonable attorney’s fees as constitutional claimants under AS 09.60.010. The Hughes plaintiffs opposed, arguing that they themselves were constitutional claimants and that the Holman intervenors were not constitutional claimants because they were intervenor-defendants. The superior court determined that the Holman intervenors were constitutional claimants. It also found that because Pebble Limited Partnership (Pebble) financed at least part of the litigation for the Hughes plaintiffs, Pebble was the real party in interest; the court further found that Pebble did not qualify as a constitutional claimant because it had sufficient economic incentive to bring the action. The court therefore awarded the Holman intervenors full reasonable attorney’s fees. The Hughes plaintiffs appealed. The Supreme Court held that because this case was fundamentally about constitutional limits on the ballot-initiative process and not whether the Pebble Project should go forward, the Hughes plaintiffs did not have sufficient economic incentive to remove them from constitutional-claimant status, and therefore reversed the award of attorney’s fees. View "Alaska Miners Association v. Holman" on Justia Law
Flint Hills Resources Alaska, LLC v. Williams Alaska Petroleum, Inc.
Williams Alaska Petroleum owned the North Pole refinery until 2004. Williams knew that the then-unregulated chemical sulfolane was present in refinery property groundwater, but it did not know that the sulfolane had migrated off the refinery property via underground water flow. Flint Hills Resources Alaska bought the North Pole refinery from Williams in 2004 pursuant to a contract that contained detailed terms regarding environmental liabilities, indemnification, and damages caps. Almost immediately the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation informed Flint Hills that sulfolane was to be a regulated chemical and that Flint Hills needed to find the source of the sulfolane in the groundwater. The Department contacted Flint Hills again in 2006. Flint Hills’s environmental contractor repeatedly warned Flint Hills that sulfolane could be leaving the refinery property and that more work was necessary to ascertain the extent of the problem. In 2008, Flint Hills drilled perimeter wells and discovered the sulfolane was migrating beyond its property and had contaminated drinking water in North Pole. A North Pole resident sued Flint Hills and Williams, and Flint Hills cross-claimed against Williams for indemnification. After extensive motion practice the superior court dismissed all of Flint Hills’s claims against Williams as time-barred. Flint Hills appealed. After review, the Supreme Court held that the superior court correctly applied the contract’s damages cap provision, but concluded that the court erred in finding Flint Hills’s contractual indemnification claims and part of its statutory claims were time-barred. The Court also affirmed the court’s dismissal of Flint Hills’s equitable claims. View "Flint Hills Resources Alaska, LLC v. Williams Alaska Petroleum, Inc." on Justia Law
Lieutenant Governor of the State of Alaska v. Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance
The Lieutenant Governor declined to certify a proposed ballot initiative that would ban commercial set net fishing in nonsubsistence areas, reasoning that the initiative was a constitutionally prohibited appropriation of public assets. The superior court approved the initiative, concluding that set netters were not a distinct commercial user group and that the legislature and Board of Fisheries would retain discretion to allocate the salmon stock to other commercial fisheries. After the Supreme Court's review of the matter, it concluded that set netters were a distinct commercial user group that deserved recognition in the context of the constitutional prohibition on appropriations. The Court therefore reverse the superior court’s judgment because this proposed ballot initiative would have completely appropriated salmon away from set netters and prohibited the legislature from allocating any salmon to that user group. View "Lieutenant Governor of the State of Alaska v. Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance" on Justia Law
Estrada v. Alaska
Four Angoon fishermen challenged an Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulation that limits how many fish may be taken annually under a subsistence fishing permit on various grounds after they were charged with taking more salmon than their permits allowed. The district court agreed with their challenge and dismissed the charges. The court of appeals reversed. After its review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that these harvest limits were regulations that had to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Because the Department promulgated these harvest limits without following the requirements of the APA, the Court reversed the court of appeals and reinstated the district court judgments dismissing these charges. View "Estrada v. Alaska" on Justia Law