” Save Our Mountains: The Impact of Save Our Cumberland Mountains v. Kempthorne in Encouraging NEPA Efficiency”

Former staff member Lindsay Yeakel wrote this comment appearing in JNREL Vol. 21, No. 2. The following abstract was written by staff member Nick Kloiber.

On January 1, 1970, Congress enacted the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"), requiring that any proposed action involving federal funds or permits must be approved by the proper federal agency, which may require an environmental assessment (EA) or a published environmental impact statement (EIS). The overall effect of this law has required agencies to consider environmental concerns in their decision making process.

In Save Our Cumberland Mountains v. Kempthorne, 453 F.3d 334 (6th Cir. 2006), the question was raised about how far agencies must go to be in compliance with NEPA. The plaintiffs challenged an agency's ruling of no significant impact in relation to a coal mining permit application, arguing that the decision was arbitrary and that EA issued by the Agency was incomplete in that it didn't consider sufficient alternatives to the proposal.

The Sixth Circuit held that the agency met the requirements of NEPA in reaching its decision of no significant impact. The agency considered environmental impact, issues of resulting damage if the permit were issued, and looked at studies of comparative mining operations to decide that the current application would have no significant impact, and thus did not abuse its discretion or reach the decision arbitrarily.

The Court did, however, side with the plaintiffs in holding that the agency failed to consider sufficient alternatives to the proposal. The agency had argued it had a binary choice between granting and denying, whereas NEPA required it to study alternatives available. The Court reasoned that the agency could limit the scope of their review to reasonable alternatives, while not limiting it to a binary choice alone.

The decision in Kempthorne provides a better understanding of just what an Agency must do to satisfy the requirements of NEPA. It encourages companies seeking permits to do environmental studies prior to submitting an application, allowing the agency to incorporate the information into an EA without having to spend time and money on a full EIS. It also requires all agencies to look at reasonable alternatives to the proposal they are evaluating, instead of just granting or denying the application. This helps to ensure EA's accomplish their goals and that agency findings of no significant impact aren't arbitrary but are backed up by not just research but by consideration of alternatives. The overall cost, time, and effort savings encouraged by Kempthorne are a win-win for agencies, the environment and industry alike.