Articles Posted in Environmental Law

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Relevant to this appeal, set net and drift net commercial fishers both targeted sockeye salmon returning to the Kasilof and Kenai Rivers. The 2013 commercial fishing season in the Upper Cook Inlet saw strong sockeye salmon runs, but the Kenai River king salmon run was the weakest on record. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (Department) regulated commercial and sport fishing. Attempting to achieve the minimum escapement goal for Kenai River kings while also keeping the strong sockeye run in check, and recognizing that set netters’ incidental harvest of those kings posed a greater risk to the king run than did drift netters’ substantially smaller incidental harvest, the Department’s Commissioner used her emergency order authority to limit time for and then close the set net fishery while also increasing the drift net fishery time. The set netters filed suit and sought an emergency preliminary injunction to re-open their fishery. The superior court declined to issue an injunction. The set netters amended their complaint to request a declaratory judgment recognizing the validity of the Board of Fisheries’ management plans and a permanent injunction directing the Department to follow those plans. They also sought damages, asserting constitutional claims and a claim for negligent or willful fisheries mismanagement. The superior court granted summary judgment in full to the Department and assessed an attorney’s fees award against the set netters, who appealed both orders. Because there were no genuine issues of material fact and the Department was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the Supreme Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment. Furthermore, because the Court found no abuse of discretion in the superior court’s attorney’s fees award, it affirmed that award. View "Cook Inlet Fisherman's Fund v. Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game" on Justia Law

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This case centered on a challenge to the Board of Game's 2010 amendments to regulations for subsistence caribou hunting in Game Management Unit 13, known as the Nelchina basin. The Alaska Board of Game promulgated regulations managing caribou hunting in Game Management Unit 13. The regulations allowed hunting under three types of permits: a community harvest subsistence permit, an individual subsistence permit, or a non-subsistence drawing permit. A hunter challenged the regulations on constitutional and statutory grounds, arguing that they wrongfully interfered with his subsistence hunting rights, and also sought a judicially imposed public reprimand of an assistant attorney general representing the Board. The superior court dismissed the claim against the attorney, granted summary judgment upholding the regulations, and awarded partial attorney's fees to the State and an intervenor defendant. The hunter appeals. After review, the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal and summary judgment orders, but vacated the attorney's fees awards and remand for further proceedings. View "Manning v. Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game" on Justia Law

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M&M Constructors, owned by James McGlinchy, submitted a permit application to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to mine a mineral deposit for use as construction rock. DNR denied M&M’s permit application because it concluded that the mineral deposit was common variety stone. Under the Common Varieties Act, “common varieties” of stone are not subject to “location,” meaning they could not be permitted through the mining law’s location process. M&M appealed to the superior court, arguing that DNR wrongly denied its permit application and also denied it procedural due process. After the superior court affirmed, M&M appealed to the Supreme Court. After review, the Supreme Court affirmed because M&M sought to mine for common variety stone that was "well within the ambit" of the Common Varieties Act, and it received "ample" due process in the DNR proceeding. View "McGlinchy v. Alaska Dept. of Nat. Resources" on Justia Law

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An oyster farmer closed his farm after dozens of people became sick from eating his oysters. He sued the state Department of Environmental Conservation, alleging that the agency negligently informed him that the site of his farm was suitable for shellfish farming. The superior court granted summary judgment for the agency, concluding that the farmer’s misrepresentation claim was barred by state sovereign immunity. The farmer argued on appeal that the agency’s sovereign immunity defense was inapplicable because his complaint alleged a claim of negligence, not negligent misrepresentation. After review, the Supreme Court found the allegations in the farmer’s complaint supported only a negligent misrepresentation claim. Therefore, the Court affirmed the superior court's order granting summary judgment to the agency. View "Miller v. Dept. of Environmental Conservation" on Justia Law

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An oyster farmer closed his farm after dozens of people became sick from eating his oysters. He sued the state Department of Environmental Conservation, alleging that the agency negligently informed him that the site of his farm was suitable for shellfish farming. The superior court granted summary judgment for the agency, concluding that the farmer’s misrepresentation claim was barred by state sovereign immunity. The farmer argued on appeal that the agency’s sovereign immunity defense was inapplicable because his complaint alleged a claim of negligence, not negligent misrepresentation. After review, the Supreme Court found the allegations in the farmer’s complaint supported only a negligent misrepresentation claim. Therefore, the Court affirmed the superior court's order granting summary judgment to the agency. View "Miller v. Dept. of Environmental Conservation" on Justia Law

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Lake and Peninsula Borough voters passed an initiative prohibiting large-scale mining activities that had a "significant adverse impact" on anadromous waters within the Borough. Pebble Limited Partnership and Alaska (first in separate suits, later consolidated) brought suit against the Borough claiming that the initiative was preempted by state law. Two of the initiative sponsors intervened to support the initiative. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of Pebble and the State and enjoined the Borough from enforcing the initiative. The sponsors appealed, arguing that the dispute was unripe and that the superior court's preemption analysis was erroneous. But because at least the State has articulated a concrete harm stemming from the initiative's mere enactment, the Supreme Court found the case ripe for adjudication. And because the initiative purported to give the Borough veto power over mining projects on state lands within its borders, it seriously impeded the implementation of the Alaska Land Act, which granted the Department of Natural Resources "charge of all matters affecting exploration, development, and mining" of state resources. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision in favor of Pebble and the State. View "Jacko v. Alaska" on Justia Law