Court Opinion: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion for June 12

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Citizens for Constitutional Integrity, et al. v. United States, et al.

Citizens for Constitutional Integrity and Southwest Advocates, Inc. appealed the denial of their motion for temporary relief by the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. The Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement granted a coal-mining permit for an expansion of the King II Mine in the Dunn Ranch Area of La Plata County, Colorado. The plaintiffs sought to enjoin mining under the expansion and ultimately vacate the permit. They alleged the interior’s office conducted flawed assessments of the probable hydrologic impacts of the expansion, contrary to the requirements of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. As authority for their motion, the plaintiffs invoked the act’s citizen-suit provision, the Administrative Procedure Act.

Exercising jurisdiction, the 10th Circuit held the plaintiffs weren’t entitled to temporary relief because their claims under the SMCRA and the APA weren’t likely to succeed on the merits. The opinion explained the plaintiffs couldn’t use APA to challenge discretionary action by the interior’s office; and it was unlikely that issuance of the permit could be challenged under the APA because there appeared to be an adequate remedy under the SMCRA, though the plaintiffs didn’t pursue that remedy. 

The SMCRA “is a comprehensive statute that regulates all surface coal mining operations” in the U.S. It “establishes a program of cooperative federalism that allows the States, within limits established by federal minimum standards, to enact and administer their own regulatory programs, structured to meet their own particular needs.” The act and its implementing regulations is administered and enforced by the Secretary of the Interior. 

Any entity that wishes to engage in coal-mining operations on lands within the office’s jurisdiction, the opinion explains, needs a permit issued by the office. Although GCC Energy, LLC, the operator of the mine, had an existing permit for the mine, the Dunn Ranch Area expansion would increase the size of the mine by 2,462 acres, so GCC Energy needed to apply for another permit. GCC Energy submitted its application for a revised and expanded permit Sept. 25, 2019. The office approved the new permit on Dec. 8, 2020. In doing so, the office made several written findings “[b]ased on its review of the permit revision application.” 

Among these findings were “[t]he revision application is accurate and complete, and the applicant has complied with all requirements of SMCRA and the Indian Lands Program for the permit revision.” The office found the cumulative-hydrologic-impact assessment released earlier in 2020 didn’t need to be updated to assess the hydrologic impacts of the Dunn Ranch Area expansion. And it determined two environmental assessments, conducted in 2011 and 2019, “adequately address[ed] the impacts of the mine operation.”

Citizens for Constitutional Integrity and Southwest Advocates, Inc. filed this suit March 31, 2021. On Nov. 10, 2021, they filed a motion seeking preliminary injunctive relief under one of the SMCRA’s temporary-relief provisions. The district court denied the motion. The plaintiffs timely appealed. 

A grant of temporary relief under the SMCRA stays action “pending final determination of the proceedings.” When reviewing a district court’s grant or denial of a preliminary injunction, the court scrutinizes “abstract legal matters de novo, findings of fact for clear error and judgment calls with considerable deference to the trier. [The court] will disturb the ruling below only if the court abused its discretion.” The 10th Circuit applied the same standard of review to a grant or denial of relief.

“A plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction must establish that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest.” 

But the SMCRA provided that “[i]n the case of a proceeding to review any order or decision issued by the [Office] under [the SMCRA],” a “court may, under such conditions as it may prescribe, grant such temporary relief as it deems appropriate pending final determination of the proceedings” if three conditions are met: “all parties to the proceedings have been notified and given an opportunity to be heard on a request for temporary relief;” “the person requesting such relief shows that there is a substantial likelihood that he will prevail on the merits of the final determination of the proceeding;” and “such relief will not adversely affect the public health or safety or cause significant imminent environmental harm to land, air, or water resources.”

The parties disagreed about which test applied. The plaintiffs argued for the application to modify the three-factor test so they don’t need to show irreparable harm and the court doesn’t need to balance the equities, while the office argued for the traditional four-factor test. Both standards required the plaintiffs to demonstrate they were likely to succeed on the merits of their claims. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs failed to satisfy this condition.

The plaintiffs alleged the office’s approval of the Dunn Ranch Area expansion violated four provisions of the SMCRA – (1) 30 U.S.C. § 1257(b)(11); (2) 30 U.S.C. § 1260(b)(1); (3) 30 U.S.C. § 1260(b)(3); and (4) 30 U.S.C. § 1265(b)(10). The plaintiffs also alleged the expansion was arbitrary and capricious in approving the expansion without investigating why GCC Energy would need to acquire six times the quantity of water rights that it was using and in “fail[ing] to analyze the volume of diverted irrigation water that would otherwise replenish underground aquifers.”

The plaintiffs contended they may use APA, one of the SMCRA’s citizen-suit provisions, to advance all these arguments. They argued in the alternative if they cannot obtain review under the SMCRA, they may proceed under the cause of action provided by the APA. 

In response, the office argued the citizen-suit provision didn’t cover the plaintiffs’ claims of arbitrary and capricious action; that a different provision of the act covered the plaintiffs’ arbitrary-and-capricious claims; and that the availability of the cause of action under SMCRA’s temporary-relief provisions precluded the plaintiffs from availing themselves of the APA cause-of-action. Because the office appeared to be correct on these points and because the office didn’t violate the four specific provisions relied on by the plaintiffs, the 10th Circuit held the district court didn’t abuse its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ motion for temporary relief. 

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