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Mobile Baykeeper, Inc. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

October 16, 2014

U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS, et al., Defendants, PLAINS SOUTHCAP INC., Intervenor-Defendant.


WILLIAM H. STEELE, Chief District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on a series of interlocking cross-motions for summary judgment, including the following: Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 38), the Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 43) filed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. General Thomas P. Bostick and Col. Jon J. Chytka, and the Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 45) filed by intervenor-defendant Plains Southcap Inc. All three Motions have been extensively briefed and are now ripe for disposition.

I. Nature of the Case.

This action arises from Plains Southcap's construction of a 24-inch crude oil pipeline over a span of 41 miles, from the Ten-Mile Terminal, located approximately 11 miles northwest of downtown Mobile, Alabama, extending southwest to the Chevron Refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi, approximately one mile from the Gulf of Mexico. An 18-mile portion of that pipeline project was to be built in Mobile County, Alabama.[1] That portion of the pipeline project was designed to traverse the Big Creek Lake watershed, and to include multiple crossings of Hamilton Creek, a major tributary of Big Creek Lake.[2] In January 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the "Corps") issued 14 verifications for the Alabama portion of the pipeline, thereby verifying that Nationwide Permit 12 ("NWP 12") applied to those proposed discharges of dredged and fill material, and authorizing construction to proceed under the Clean Water Act ("CWA"). Later that year, Plains Southcap began constructing the pipeline in the Big Creek Lake watershed.

On January 24, 2014, plaintiff, Mobile Baykeeper, Inc. ("Baykeeper"), commenced this action against the Corps and two of its officials, Lt. General Thomas P. Bostick and Col. Jon J. Chytka (collectively, the "Corps Defendants"). Baykeeper alleged that the Corps' verification of the pipeline project routing through the Big Creek Lake - Hamilton Creek watershed violated the CWA, the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), and applicable rules and regulations because (i) the Corps failed to consider General Condition 7, relating to proximity to public water supply intakes; (ii) the Corps failed to consider the cumulative impacts of the pipeline route in this watershed; and (iii) the Corps failed to consider whether routing the pipeline through the watershed would be contrary to the public interest. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 50-68.) On that basis, Baykeeper requested that the Court declare the Corps' verifications of the Alabama segment of the pipeline under NWP 12 to be null and void, enjoin Plains Southcap from conducting any activities in reliance on those verifications, and enjoin the construction and operation of the pipeline until the Corps Defendants comply with the CWA and the APA. Plaintiff did not seek a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction. On February 13, 2014, the Court entered an Order (doc. 15) granting Plains Southcap's motion to intervene as a party defendant.

Now, all parties have moved for summary judgment on this matter in its entirety.

II. Relevant Factual Background.

A. The Pre-Construction Notification.

On September 12, 2012, Plains Southcap caused to be submitted to the Corps a pre-construction notification ("PCN") for the Alabama portion of the pipeline, whereby it requested authorization under NWP 12 to construct the project. (AR 2-3.)[3] The PCN (which included maps showing the proposed pipeline locations, as well as adjacent wetlands, streams, and other topographic features) explained that construction of the pipeline would be within a 75-foot right-of-way, and would consist of clearing vegetation, excavating a trench, laying the pipe, replacing soil, adjusting topography, and re-establishing vegetation, with a permanent 50-foot easement. (AR 4.) Plains Southcap notified the Corps of its environmental consultants' opinion that "[b]ased on our regulatory analysis, the proposed project could be constructed under the conditions of NWP 12 with submittal of a PCN." (AR 61.)

B. The January 2013 Verifications.

After several months of back-and-forth discussions and supplementation of information by Plains Southcap (including detailed documentation concerning topics such as impacts on gopher tortoises, bald eagles and sites containing cultural artifacts), the Corps issued a "Decision Document" for the Alabama pipeline PCN on January 17, 2013. The Decision Document noted that the project "will require temporary trenching of 22 stream crossings, impacting 389 linear feet of stream bottoms, and the mechanized land-clearing, temporary trenching and side-casting of fill, and temporary and permanent conversion of bottomland hardwood wetlands to shrub-scrub and emergent wetlands within 40.42 acres of wetlands located within 107 wetland polygons along the pipeline corridor in Alabama." (AR 1005.) It further observed that "[a]ll wetland and stream impacts are temporary except for the permanent conversion of forested wetlands to non-forested wetlands." (AR 1005-06.)

The Decision Document issued verification for the project under NWP 12, subject to certain enumerated conditions. One such condition provided that "[m]aterial resulting from trench excavation may be temporarily side cast into waters of the United States for no more than three months, and must be placed and stabilized in such a manner that it will not be dispersed by currents or other forces." (AR 1007.) Another condition obligated Plains Southcap to purchase 25.92 bottomland hardwood wetland mitigation credits from an approved Alabama wetland mitigation bank. (AR 1008.) The Corps further required Plains Southcap to restore all temporary impacts to waters of the United States to their pre-impact elevation, contours and ecological condition, except where otherwise noted, with annual monitoring reports to be submitted for a period of five years. ( Id. ) Plains Southcap was forbidden from disposing of trees, brush or other debris in any stream corridor, wetland or surface water, and was likewise barred from discharging sewage, oil, refuse or other pollutants into the watercourse. (AR 1009.)

The Decision Document, which was authored by Corps Team Leader Michael B. Moxey, concluded as follows: "I have reviewed the proposed project and determined that the work will result in minimal individual and cumulative adverse effects on the aquatic environment." (AR 1011.) Also in that Decision Document, Moxey certified that "[t]his project complies with all terms and conditions of the NWP's including any applicable Regional Conditions." ( Id. )

On January 18, 2013, the Corps sent a letter to Plains Southcap, verifying that the Alabama portion of the pipeline is authorized by NWP 12 and providing 14 separate NWP 12 verifications (each one covering all impacts and crossings over a waterbody and adjacent wetlands at a single location). (AR 1012-16.) Those verifications were to remain valid for two years and were subject to all terms and conditions associated with NWP 12, as well as certain special conditions enumerated by the Corps.[4]

As verified by the Corps, the Plains Southcap project called for the pipeline to be constructed at distances of less than one mile from Big Creek Lake, the public drinking water supply for approximately 200, 000 people in the Mobile area. (Sackett Aff. (doc. 32-1), ¶ 11 & Exh. A.) The pipeline would also pass within approximately two miles of the S. Palmer Gaillard Pumping Station, the public water supply intake on Big Creek Lake. ( Id. , ¶ 10 & Exh. A.) And the pipeline would cross Hamilton Creek, a tributary of Big Creek Lake, multiple times during its routing through lower Alabama. (AR 1020-21.) Although the Administrative Record is voluminous, all parties concur that it lacks any showing that the Corps considered the proximity of the pipeline to the public water supply intake in issuing the NWP 12 verifications. There is likewise no dispute that the Corps neglected to make any determination that allowing the pipeline to pass so close to the public water supply intake would serve the public interest. Such concerns lie at the core of Baykeeper's lawsuit.

C. Post-January 2013 Modifications to the Project.

On February 10, 2014 (barely two weeks after Baykeeper filed suit), Plains Southcap notified the Corps in writing that it had modified the pipeline design to utilize horizontal directional drilling ("HDD") techniques for certain stream crossings in the Hamilton Creek watershed. (Doc. 34-1, at 1-2.) Plains Southcap explained that these modifications were being implemented to "minimize any adverse impacts from construction." ( Id. at 2.) On that basis, Plains Southcap requested re-verification from the Corps "that the Project is authorized under NWP 12, in light of these new efforts to further minimize impacts in the area of the Hamilton Creek watershed." ( Id. ) On February 28, 2014, the Corps responded to Plains Southcap that "[a] Department of the Army permit is not required for the proposed underground directional drilling if there is no associated discharge of dredge or fill material into wetlands and streams. Your previous authorization under Nationwide 12 for the remainder of the crossings remains in effect...." (Doc. 34-2, at 1.)[5]

It is undisputed, however, that even with the aforementioned modifications, "some permitted activities in the Hamilton Creek watershed remain." (Doc. 43, at 11.) The Corps acknowledges that when Plains Southcap excavated trenches for the pipeline that crossed wetlands, the associated removal of vegetation and temporary discharge of dredged or fill material into wetlands was subject to the Corps' regulatory authority under § 404 of the CWA. ( Id. at 11-12.) Likewise, Plains Southcap characterizes its modifications to the project as "eliminat[ing] most of the ground level stream crossings" (doc. 46, at 11), not all of them. Certainly, defendants have not offered evidence - and the record does not unequivocally establish - that no stream crossings within the Hamilton Creek watershed were ultimately performed using the traditional trench excavation techniques (producing discharges of dredged and fill material in waterways), as opposed to HDD techniques (producing no such discharges). Reasonable inferences from the record, and from defendants' own statements, are to the contrary.

At any rate, the Alabama portion of the pipeline project has been completed and the pipeline is now operational. (Lee Aff. (doc. 45-2), ¶ 2 ("Plains Southcap has constructed and now operates and approximately 41 mile long interstate pipeline that transports crude oil....").) Plains Southcap shows that construction of the Alabama portion of the pipeline commenced in March 2013, and was completed in March 2014, some two months after Baykeeper initiated this lawsuit. ( Id. , ¶ 4.)

III. Summary Judgment Standard.

Summary judgment should be granted only "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Rule 56(a), Fed.R.Civ.P. The party seeking summary judgment bears "the initial burden to show the district court, by reference to materials on file, that there are no genuine issues of material fact that should be decided at trial." Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). Once the moving party has satisfied its responsibility, the burden shifts to the non-movant to show the existence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. "If the nonmoving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof, ' the moving party is entitled to summary judgment." Id. (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317 (1986)) (footnote omitted). "In reviewing whether the nonmoving party has met its burden, the court must stop short of weighing the evidence and making credibility determinations of the truth of the matter. Instead, the evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Tipton v. Bergrohr GMBH-Siegen , 965 F.2d 994, 999 (11th Cir. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted). "Summary judgment is justified only for those cases devoid of any need for factual determinations." Offshore Aviation v. Transcon Lines, Inc. , 831 F.2d 1013, 1016 (11th Cir. 1987) (citation omitted).

Here, all parties have moved for summary judgment on all claims, in accordance with a special scheduling order that the parties jointly proposed.[6] The law is clear that "[t]he applicable Rule 56 standard is not affected by the filing of cross-motions for summary judgment." Smith v. Seaport Marine, Inc. , 981 F.Supp.2d 1188, 1193 (S.D. Ala. 2013) (citations omitted). Indeed, "[c]ross-motions for summary judgment will not, in themselves, warrant the court in granting summary judgment unless one of the parties is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on facts that are not genuinely disputed." United States v. Oakley , 744 F.2d 1553, 1555 (11th Cir. 1984). That said, it is also recognized that "cross-motions may be probative of the absence of a factual dispute where they reflect general agreement by the parties as to the dispositive legal theories and material facts." Smith , 981 F.Supp.2d at 1193 (citations omitted). Such is the case here.

IV. Analysis.

A. Defendants' Preliminary Objections to Baykeeper's Claims.

Antecedent to reaching the merits of whether the Corps' verification decisions as to the Alabama portion of the Plains Southcap pipeline were in conformity with the CWA, the APA and the Corps' own rules, the Court pauses to address preliminary objections interposed by one or more defendants relating to Baykeeper's legal ability to maintain this action.

1. Standing.

As an initial matter, Plains Southcap challenges whether Baykeeper can satisfy the jurisdictional prerequisite of standing. "In order to establish that it has constitutional standing to bring a suit: a plaintiff must show (1) it has suffered an injury in fact' that is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2) the injury is fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant; and (3) it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision." Florida Wildlife Federation, Inc. v. South Florida Water Management Dist. , 647 F.3d 1296, 1302 (11th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted). "These requirements are the irreducible minimum required by the Constitution for a plaintiff to proceed ...

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