Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Commercial Sand Mining Project but Remands for Failure to Comply With the Public Trust Doctrine

The First District Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s determination in part and reversed in part, finding the State Lands Commission’s EIR for a sand mining project adequate, but holding that the Commission did not comply with the public trust doctrine when it granted mineral extraction leases. (S.F. Baykeeper, Inc. v. Cal. State Lands Commission (November 18, 2015) ___Cal.App.4th ___, Case No. A142449.)

In 2014, the State Lands Commission approved the San Francisco Bay and Delta Sand Mining Project, which granted 10-year extensions of mineral extraction leases for dredge mining for marine aggregate sand under the San Francisco Bay. The lease parcels are all on sovereign lands owned by the State of California and are subject to the public trust.

The Commission published a Notice of Preparation in 2007 and released a draft EIR in 2010. Then, in 2011, using a new five-year average baseline against which the EIR measured environmental impacts, the Commission recirculated a revised draft EIR. In 2012, the Commission published a final EIR and a statement of overriding considerations, and approved a reduced project alternative. San Francisco Baykeeper, Inc. filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging that the Commission failed to comply with CEQA and violated the common law public trust doctrine.

Baykeeper argued that the Commission’s use of a five-year average baseline was improper and that the EIR should have used data from 2007, the year of publication of the NOP. The court, however, held that substantial evidence in the record, including data and statistics showing a significant decrease in production of construction aggregate in 2007, supported the baseline in the EIR.

The court also rejected Baykeeper’s arguments with respect to cumulative impacts from sand mining on erosion. The EIR determined that the project would have less-than-significant impacts because sand mining is not likely to cause measurable sediment depletion outside of mining areas. The draft EIR recognized studies suggesting that sand mining in the Bay contributes to erosion on beaches, but found no direct or empirical causal link. But after receiving numerous comments on this issue, the Commission conducted further analysis including new modeling and a review of two additional scientific articles. Again, the Commission found that there was no causal link, and determined in the final EIR that the project would have less than significant impacts on erosion. The court upheld this determination, rejecting Baykeeper’s argument that the Commission improperly used a ratio theory, as that was only one component of the analysis in the EIR and simply reinforced the Commission’s previous conclusions. Further, the court found that the new studies and analysis did not require recirculation because they did not change any of the substantive conclusions in the DEIR and did not significantly alter the main points of disagreement.

The court then turned to the Commission’s interpretation of CEQA Guidelines appendix G thresholds regarding mineral resources. The Commission interpreted the thresholds to question whether the project would interfere with important mineral resource deposit areas that should be conserved for purposes of extraction and not lost to an incompatible use, whereas Baykeeper posited that the EIR should have analyzed whether the project would deplete the mineral resource. The court pointed out that appendix G thresholds are only suggested and lead agencies have the discretion to develop their own thresholds. In addition, the court said that the Commission’s interpretation was supported by state policies regarding mineral extraction, and Baykeeper failed to provide any authority supporting a different interpretation.

Baykeeper also argued, and the court agreed, that the Commission did not properly provide notice to, nor properly consult with, the Coastal Commission or the City of San Francisco. The court emphasized that such a violation “requires reversal only upon proof of prejudice,” and found that Baykeeper failed to identify any information that would have been provided by these agencies but was omitted from environmental review as a result of the Commission’s notice and consultation violations. In fact, Baykeeper did request that the court take judicial notice of a 2015 letter regarding the project, but the court declined to do so because this did not constitute material information that was actually available when the Commission conducted its review. According to the court, because Baykeeper failed to demonstrate that pertinent information was omitted from the review process, the court could not find that the violation of notice and consultation requirements was prejudicial.

Finally, the court turned to the public trust doctrine and concluded that the Commission had an affirmative duty to consider whether the granting of private sand mining leases constitutes a permissible use under the doctrine, and the Commission failed to comply with that duty. The parties agreed that the project authorized the private use of land that is protected by the public trust, and that the Commission did not make any findings pursuant to the doctrine. The court rejected a series of arguments from the Commission, finding in part that it does not have “unfettered discretion to prefer sand mining as a preauthorized public trust use of the lease parcels.” Further, the court held that conducting a CEQA review alone does not fulfill obligations of the public trust doctrine. Thus, the court held that the Commission failed to conduct the required public trust analysis and remanded accordingly.