Appellate Court Upholds EIR Given its Discrepancies Are Minor and Present No Risk of Prejudice to the Environmental Review Process
In Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center v. County of Siskiyou (2012) 210 Cal.App.4th 184, Siskiyou County (County) approved a project to expand an existing wood veneer manufacturing facility for the cogeneration of electricity for resale. The Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center and the Weed Concerned Citizens (Plaintiffs) sought a writ of mandate against County claiming the project approval violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because the project environmental impact report (EIR): (1) failed to adequately analyze alternatives and (2) failed to fully disclose, analyze, and mitigate air quality, noise, and water quality impacts. The Third District Court of Appeal upheld the EIR upon finding its minor deficiencies did not prejudice the environmental review process.
CEQA requires an EIR to analyze a range of project alternatives that would reduce adverse environmental impacts and could be successfully accomplished within a reasonable period of time and attain the basic objectives of the project. Plaintiffs contended the EIR’s analysis of the project and the “No Project” alternatives alone were not enough. The court explained under CEQA, there is no magic number of alternatives the County must consider. Given the circumstances of the case and the basic project objectives, the court found the alternatives analysis sufficient under CEQA. The court also explained Plaintiffs had a burden to show the EIR failed to include a particular alternative that was potentially feasible under the circumstances, which Plaintiffs failed to meet.
Plaintiffs next contended the EIR failed to analyze and mitigate air quality, noise, and water impacts of the project. Plaintiffs’ first claim targeted the EIR’s baseline. CEQA guidelines require an EIR to include a description of the project’s environmental setting, which is then used as the baseline to determine whether a project’s impact is significant. Plaintiffs claimed the EIR incorrectly relied on an approximation of emissions as opposed to actual emissions. County responded the baseline used data representative of actual operations at the existing facility and not the maximum permitted or hypothetical rates. Upon finding the actual and approximate emissions were nearly identical, the court concluded the seven percent difference would not “have precluded informed decision-making or … public participation,” and was therefore adequate under CEQA.
Plaintiffs’ complaint regarding noise impacts consisted of several separate issues, all of which were rejected, mostly due to no substantial evidence and legal support. One claim was the EIR lacked evidence supporting its conclusion that project noise impacts will be less than significant. Plaintiffs claimed the EIR should have included a 24-hour noise study to determine if outdoor noise is already excessively loud, instead of “just a few 15-minute noise level measurements.” The court explained there is nothing requiring a 24-hour measurement rather than periodic sampling during a 24-hour period. Plaintiffs also alleged a failure to look at the cumulative noise impacts in Weed. Given a significant cumulative noise impact already existed in Weed, and the project would add very little noise to that total, the court upheld the EIR’s determination that the Project’s cumulative noise impacts would be less than significant. Lastly, Plaintiffs argued the County should have recirculated the EIR after two “significant new noise reports” were added to it. If new information is added to an EIR after completion of the public comment period, the lead agency must recirculate the EIR with a new comment period. The court noticed while the Draft EIR did not include the studies, it did identify both reports and include a summary of the findings. Inclusion of the two reports in their entirety thus did not constitute adding significant new information. Recirculation was not necessary.
Plaintiffs’ last claim alleged the EIR failed to include an adequate description and analysis of the impacts on water quality and usage. Plaintiffs did not provide legal or factual bases to show future water use will change, and presented nothing to refute the Final EIR’s conclusion that the Project’s water use would be consistent with historical practice and adjudicated water rights. The court also held Plaintiffs’ argument regarding the Project’s water usage was a difference of opinion as to how the project’s cooling tower will operate, which is no ground for setting aside County’s approval of the EIR.
When examining an EIR, the court will generally defer to the lead agency and refuse to overturn an EIR if its minor discrepancies don’t cause prejudice to the environmental review process. As seen in this case, the court will also refuse to set aside an EIR if the opposing party either fails to present substantial evidence of CEQA violations or fails to present evidence other than a difference of opinion.
Written By: Tina Thomas, Christopher Butcher and Holly McMannes (law clerk)
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