On September 30, 2014, the United States District Court for the District of Arizona (Campbell, D.J.) issued an order in Yount v. Salazar, Nos. 11-8171 et al., 2014 WL 4904423 (D. Ariz. Sept. 30, 2014).  As part of this order, the court determined that certain business plaintiffs’ alleged injuries did not fall within the “zone of interests” of the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), drawing in part on a recent Supreme Court opinion clarifying the zone-of-interests doctrine.

In Yount, a group of counties, business associations, businesses, and one individual sued the Secretary of the Interior and other federal officials and agencies.  The Secretary had withdrawn over one million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from uranium mining (the “withdrawal”), and plaintiffs sought to set aside that withdrawal as illegal under NEPA and other federal statutes.  The September 30 order granted summary judgment in favor of defendants.  Id. at *1.

In a prior order of January 8, 2013, the court had dismissed several plaintiffs’ NEPA claims, but declined to dismiss the NEPA claims of three plaintiffs: the Nuclear Energy Institute (“NEI”), the National Mining Association (“NMA”), and the Arizona Utah Local Economic Coalition (the “Coalition”). Id. at *2.  In that earlier order, the court reasoned that these plaintiffs had demonstrated Article III standing for their NEPA claims because the withdrawal imposed lengthy and expensive examination processes on their members and reduced the value of existing mining claims.  Id. at *5.  The court then determined that these plaintiffs also satisfied the requirements of so-called “prudential” standing, because their alleged injuries were within NEPA’s “zone of interests.”  Id.  Although purely economic injuries do not fall within that zone, in the January 8 order the court had held that, so long as a party alleges an economic interest that satisfies Article III, that party’s asserted environmental interests under NEPA need not independently satisfy Article III, but need only satisfy “prudential” standing requirements.  Id. at *5-6.

In the September 30 order, the court “stands by” its earlier Article III decision with respect to these plaintiffs’ NEPA claims.  Id. at *5.  However, it revisited the second aspect of its decision, concluding that the same asserted injury must satisfy both constitutional and zone-of-interests requirements.  Id.at *6.

In so ruling, the district court looked to the Supreme Court’s decision last term in Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1377 (2014).  2014 WL 4904423, at *5, 6-7.  In Lexmark, a copyright and false-advertising case, the Court explained that “prudential” standing is a “misleading” term.  134 S. Ct. at 1386.  Instead, the Court clarified, Article III establishes the familiar tripartite “‘irreducible constitutional minimum of standing’”: injury-in-fact, causation, and redressability.  Id. (quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992)).  As for the “zone of interests” tests, it is a matter of statutory interpretation: a court must determine “whether a legislatively conferred cause of action encompasses a particular plaintiff’s claim.”  Id. at 1387.  This isnot an exercise of a court’s “prudence,” but a determination of Congressional intent.  See id. at 1388.

Applying these principles, the district court determined that NEPA’s purposes are “exclusively environmental.”  2014 WL 4904423, at *6.  Therefore, “it makes sense to require that the gravamen of Plaintiff’s complaint—the wrong that brings them to court—must fall within NEPA’s zone of interests.”  Id.  In other words, the same asserted injury that satisfies Article III’s requirements mustalso fall within the statute’s requirements.  Holding that NEI and NMA “fail to establish a single injury that both satisfies the requirements of Article III and falls within NEPA’s zone of interests,” the court granted defendants summary judgment on those plaintiffs’ NEPA claims.  Id. at *7.  (As for the Coalition, its alleged injuries did meet this double requirement.  The court went on to reject its NEPA claims on the merits.  Id. at *8, 9-14.)

The district court’s order represents an early attempt to apply the teachings of Lexmark to environmental law.  It is too soon to predict whether its application will persuade other courts or survive possible appellate challenge.  Nevertheless, this issue merits close attention by businesses and trade associations, and all others interested in environmental law and regulation.