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Webster v. United States Dept. of Agric., No. 11-1739

Decided: July 13, 2012

Appellants filed suit challenging the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) decision to construct a dam as part of a larger project along the Lost River Subwatershed. Appellants alleged that the USDA, through its agency the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) — a procedural statute that “sets forth a regulatory scheme for major federal actions that may significantly affect the natural environment.” The district court considered each alleged violation, and ultimately concluded that the USDA complied with the NEPA’s procedural requirements. As such, the district court granted USDA’s motion for summary judgment, and the appellants appealed. The court of appeals affirmed.

This case involves a NRCS project to provide watershed protection, flood prevention, water supply, and recreation along the Lost River Subwatershed. The project involves a combination of land-treatment measures, dams, and impoundments. To comply with the NEPA, the NRCS was required to follow set procedures, including a scoping process and issuance of an environmental impact statement.

On appeal, the appellants raised eight issues, all of which deal with alleged violations of the NEPA. Appellants first alleged that the NRCS did not comply with the NEPA requirements in declaring watershed protection, flood prevention, and water supply as the stated purposes and needs for the dam at issue. The court of appeals disagreed, holding that the NRCS’s decision to include watershed protection, flood prevention, and water supply as the purposes underlying the dam’s construction was an appropriate exercise of its discretion. The court dismissed the appellants’ next contention as well, holding that the NRCS was not required to engage in a second scoping process when it issued a supplemental environmental impact statement.

Appellants next alleged that the NRCS’ supplemental environmental impact statement omitted information that is necessary to a complete analysis of the potential environmental impacts and benefits of the dam’s construction. The court disagreed, finding that the supplemental environmental impact statement contained all the necessary information. The court also rejected the appellants’ fourth and fifth contentions, finding that the NRCS considered all reasonable alternatives and all the environmental effects that would result from the dam’s construction.

Appellants then alleged that the NRCS presented a misleading and inaccurate cost-benefit analysis and failed to provide sufficient detail about planned mitigation measures. The court rejected these allegations, holding that the cost-benefit analysis was not misleading or inflated in any way, and that the NRCS provided the appropriate amount of detail for the environmental impact statement stage. Appellants’ eighth and final contention was that the NRCS violated the NEPA by failing to invite a cooperating agency to participate in preparing the supplemental environmental impact statement. The court dismissed this argument, noting that even if the NRCS failed to ask the cooperating agency to participate, such error was harmless.

In summary, the court of appeals rejected all eight allegations of a NEPA violation and affirmed the district court’s judgment granting summary judgment to the USDA.

Full Opinion

– Kassandra Moore