California has experienced many of the largest, deadliest, and most destructive earthquakes in the U.S. Many cases suggest that CEQA requires analysis of seismic impacts that arise out of a project’s location, such as the potential for earthquakes in the area and whether soils on the site are prone to liquefaction in the event of an earthquake. (See, e.g., Oakland Heritage Alliance v. City of Oakland (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 884, 889 [damage from earthquake-caused soil liquefaction and ground shaking]; North Coast Rivers Alliance v. Marin Municipal Water Dist. Bd. of Directors (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 614, 633-635 [same].) Further, Appendix G to the CEQA Guidelines suggests that a risk of loss or injury resulting from such occurrences could be considered a potentially significant environmental impact of a project.
However, in California Building Industry Assn. v. Bay Area Air Quality Management Dist. (2015) 62 Cal.4th 369 (CBIA), the Supreme Court substantially cabined the extent to which these issues represent cognizable impacts under CEQA. The Court held that many of these concerns represent potential impacts of the environment on a project, and not, as CEQA is intended to address, the environmental impacts of the project itself. In doing so, the Court invalidated a portion of CEQA Guidelines Section 15126.2 requiring an EIR to identify the risks to future residents of a subdivision of locating the project astride an active fault line. (See also El Dorado County Taxpayers for Quality Growth v. County of El Dorado (2004) 122 Cal.App.4th 1591, 1601-1602 [landslide risks caused by prior mining operations were not impacts of the proposed reclamation plan].) Thus, under CBIA, CEQA only requires analysis where a project will cause seismic or other impacts or exacerbate existing hazards. (See, e.g., Brentwood Assn. for No Drilling, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (1982) 134 Cal.App.3d 491, 503-505 [finding substantial evidence that drilling a core hole into active fault to explore for oil might cause seismic impacts].)
Nonetheless, while existing seismic hazards generally need not be a subject of CEQA analysis, their presence may preclude the use of certain exemptions. CEQA exemptions for certain housing and transit-oriented projects are unavailable within earthquake fault or seismic hazard zones absent mitigation related to those risks in local planning documents. (Pub. Resources Code, §§ 21159.21(h)(4); 21155.1(a)(6)(D).) However, these exemptions are exceptions to the general rule that evaluation of the environment’s effects on a project’s users is not required. (CBIA, supra, 62 Cal.4th at pp. 391-392.) Further, the presence of an earthquake fault does not preclude the use of categorical exemptions under the location exception (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(a)). (Berkeley Hills Watershed Coalition v. City of Berkeley (2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 880, 890-895.)
In addition, impacts on and related to soils may also require examination under CEQA. (See, e.g., San Francisco Baykeeper, Inc. v. State Lands Com. (2015) 242 Cal.App.4th 202, 219-224 [evaluating adequacy of analysis of sand mining project’s impacts on soil erosion and sedimentation]; Parker Shattuck Neighbors v. Berkeley City Council (2013) 222 Cal.App.4th 768, 779-781 [while the presence of soil contamination on a project site does not itself require an EIR, a potential to disturb such soil and spread the contamination is a potential environmental impact]; CBIA, supra, 62 Cal.4th at p. 392 [CEQA does not generally require an agency to consider the effects of existing environmental conditions on the project’s future users, but analysis is required when a project might exacerbate existing environmental conditions].) Where issues related to soils represent impacts on the environment, including cumulative, indirect, and exacerbating impacts, they are subject to CEQA.