A federal court in the District of Columbia has overturned a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) authorization to plant biotech corn and soybeans on 44,000 acres within region four National Wildlife Refuge System lands in the Southeast. Ctr. for Food Safety v. Salazar, No. 11-1457 (D.D.C. 10/23/12). Details about the same court’s ruling dismissing a challenge to FWS’s decision to allow biotech crop planting on public lands in the Midwest appear in Issue 431 of this Update.
Plaintiffs here asserted that FWS violated the Refuge Act, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Administrative Procedure Act (APA) by authorizing use of the biotech crops without conducting either a compatibility determination under the Refuge Act or an adequate environmental assessment or environmental impact statement under NEPA. After receiving petitions to stop the planting of biotech plants until the Refuge Act requirements had been met, FWS issued a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) under NEPA, adopting prior U.S. Department of Agriculture analyses. FWS subsequently decided to stop authorizing biotech crops after 2012, until it could complete “appropriate environmental analysis under NEPA and a Compatibility Determination.”
FWS did not controvert plaintiffs’ claims that it had not met NEPA and Refuge Act requirements. Instead, citing its determination to cease allowing biotech crops, FWS contended that plaintiffs’ claims were moot. The court disagreed, citing the “heavy burden” on FWS to prove that the case had become moot. According to the court, FWS’s decision did not completely and irrevocably eradicate the effects of the alleged violation because the authorizations for planting in 2012 continued to exert their alleged environmental effects. The court also, “[w]ithout passing on the wisdom of any of [plaintiffs’] proposed measures,” determined that plaintiffs had demonstrated that the court could grant effective relief, such as ordering mitigation for crops already planted. The court therefore granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and set the case for a hearing on the remedy.