First Circuit Finds Environmental Review Under Certified Regulatory Program Inadequate

In Pesticide Action Network North America v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 224 (republished as modified) the First Appellate District reversed the Alameda Superior Court and found that environmental documents prepared by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, regarding amended labelling for two pesticides, inadequately analyzed potential impacts on honeybees. The court held that the Department was required to analyze the environmental baseline, alternatives, and cumulative impacts in documents promulgated under CEQA’s exemption for certified regulatory programs (CRP).

The Department of Pesticide Regulation registers all pesticides in California, after evaluating their efficiency and potential for impacts to human health and the environment. The Department has a continuing obligation to reevaluate pesticides, and may cancel a prior registration. Since 2006, there has been a documented widespread collapse of honey bee colonies in the United States. One suspected factor is exposure to pesticides such as dinotefuran, the active ingredient in pesticides sold by the real parties. For this reason, in 2009, the Department initiated the still-ongoing process of reevaluating dinotefuran’s registration. Simultaneously, in 2014, the Department issued public reports for a proposal to amend labels for pesticides containing dinotefuron. The amended labels would allow the pesticides to be used on fruit trees, and in increased quantities. The reports concluded that the use of each pesticide in a manner consistent with the new labels would have no direct or indirect significant adverse environmental impacts, and therefore the Department did not propose alternatives or mitigation measures. The Department issued a final approval of the label amendments in June 2014. Pesticide Action Network filed a petition for writ of mandate in Alameda Superior Court and after a lower court finding for the Department, this appeal followed.

The Department’s pesticide program falls under the CEQA section 21080.5 exemption for CRPs. This exemption permits a state agency to rely on abbreviated environmental review documents, which are the functional equivalent of CEQA documents. Here, the Department issued the functional equivalent of a negative declaration. The standard of review is whether there was a prejudicial abuse of discretion, which is established if the agency did not proceed in a manner required by law, or if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence.

First, the court rejected the Department’s assertion that because it operates a CRP, its functionally-equivalent environmental review documents are otherwise exempt from CEQA’s substantive requirements. The court found that section 21080.5 is a “limited” exemption, and environmental review must otherwise comply with CEQA’s policy goals, substantive requirements, content requirements stated in section 21080.5, and any other CEQA provisions, as well as the Department’s own regulations.

Second, the court found that the Department’s report was inadequate under CEQA because it failed to analyze alternatives and cumulative impacts, and did not describe the environmental baseline. With respect to alternatives, contrary to the Department’s assertion, a functionally-equivalent document prepared under a CRP must consider alternatives, as required by both CEQA and the Department’s own regulations. The Department argued that it did not need to consider alternatives because it concluded there would be no significant environmental impacts. The court explained that the standard for a CRP for determining whether an adverse impact may occur is the same as the “fair argument” standard under CEQA. Furthermore, the content requirements for environmental review under a CRP require that a state agency provide proof–either a checklist or other report–that there will not be adverse effects. The court found that the Department did not produce or consider such evidence.

The court also held that the substantive requirements and broad policy goals of CEQA require assessment of baseline conditions. The Department argued that it had acknowledged and assessed baseline conditions, but the court disagreed. The Department’s baseline discussion was based on one statement that “the uses are already present on the labels of a number of currently registered neonicotinoid containing products.” The court found that this general statement was not sufficient.

The court found that the Department also abused its discretion when it failed to consider cumulative impacts. In its report, the Department simply stated that the cumulative analysis would be put off until the reevaluation was complete. The court found that this one-sentence discussion lacked facts and failed to provide even a brief explanation about how the Department reached its conclusion.

Finally, the court found that the Department is required to recirculate its analysis. Recirculation is required when significant new information is added to an environmental review document, after notice and public comment has occurred, but before the document is certified. The court explained that, in light of the Department’s required reevaluation, its initial public reports on the amended labeling were so “inadequate and conclusory” that public comment on them was “effectively meaningless.”

Pesticide Action Network provides important guidance regarding environmental compliance under a CEQA-exempt CRP. The court emphasized that unless specifically exempt from a CEQA provision, even functionally-equivalent CRP documents must comply with CEQA’s substantive requirements and broad policy goals. Also notable was the court’s application of the “fair argument standard” to the analysis of whether an impact would be significant under the functional equivalent of a negative declaration.