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In La Cuna De Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle Advisory Committee v. United States Department of the Interior (2012) 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97759, the Bureau of Land Management (Bureau) approved Chevron Energy Solutions Company’s (Chevron) solar-electricity general project (Project), which is located on federal public land in the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA). The United States District Court for the Central District of California concluded that, without any evidence of arbitrary action, the Bureau’s environmental impact statement (EIS) and final approval of the project were in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

La Cuna De Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle Advisory Committee, Californians for Renewable Energy, and several individual plaintiffs filed a complaint challenging the Bureau’s approval of the project, alleging: 1) violation of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA); 2) violation of NEPA by failing to adequately analyze project alternatives; 3) violation of NEPA by failing to prepare a programmatic EIS (PEIS) prior to project approval; 4) violation of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA); 5) violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA); 6) violation of public-participation rights. The Bureau and Chevron individually filed motions to dismiss plaintiffs’ first, third, and fifth claims; the Bureau alone sought to dismiss plaintiffs’ fourth claim. The court granted both motions to dismiss in their entirety.

The court quickly dismissed plaintiffs’ AIRFA allegations. Plaintiffs acknowledged that AIRFA does not provide a basis for relief and they did not oppose dismissal of their first claim. The court therefore struck from plaintiffs’ complaint all references to the AIRFA.

The court next dismissed plaintiffs’ NEPA claim with prejudice. Plaintiffs argued that the EIS was inadequate because a PEIS was required to evaluate the cumulative impacts of the project in relation to other similar projects. Without reaching the merits, the court explained that in order to satisfy the threshold pleading requirement for this NEPA claim plaintiffs were required to plead facts sufficient to allege that the Project is “connected, cumulative, or similar” to other projects. Plaintiffs failed to do so. Additionally, because plaintiffs made several failed attempts to amend their NEPA claim, the court dismissed the claim with prejudice.

Plaintiffs’ fourth claim alleged that due to the project’s location, the Bureau had an obligation under the FLPMA to take every action necessary to protect the project site from “unnecessary” or “undue degradation”. Plaintiffs argued that the Bureau failed to do so, violating the FLPMA. The court rejected this argument because plaintiffs did not specify how the Bureau was degrading the land. Plaintiffs also incorrectly classified the land as Class L (limited use). The court found that the project is rather on Class M (moderate use) land, which allows a variety of uses including energy. Because plaintiffs failed to provide more than general and unsubstantiated allegations, the court granted the Bureau’s motion and dismissed plaintiffs’ fourth claim without prejudice.

Lastly, plaintiffs alleged the Bureau imposed a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion since the project would interfere with access to religiously significant sites and sacred objects. The court explained that a substantial burden exists only if plaintiffs are either forced to choose between following their religion and receiving a governmental benefit, or must act contrary to their religion for fear of civil or criminal sanctions. The court concluded that plaintiffs failed to prove either element. The court further explained that denial of access to a religious site is not an element of the substantial burden test. Therefore, this claim too was dismissed with prejudice.

Key Point:

Under NEPA, the plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating that an agency’s decision to prepare a project-level EIS rather than a program EIS is arbitrary. To satisfy the threshold pleading requirement for such a claim, a plaintiff must plead facts sufficient to allege a project is “connected, cumulative, or similar” to other projects.

Written By: Tina Thomas, Ashle Crocker and Holly McMannes (law clerk)
For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

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