First District Holds CEQA Review of Freight Operations Preempted by Federal Law

On September 29, 2014, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s determination that federal law preempted review of the EIR certified by North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) approving Northwestern Pacific Railroad Company’s (NWPRC) freight operations on NCRA’s tracks. The court also rejected petitioners’ claims that NCRA and NWPRC were estopped from arguing that CEQA did not apply. Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority, Case No. A139222 (September 29, 2014).

The Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA) was enacted to eliminate outdated, burdensome regulatory restrictions on the rail industry. ICCTA grants the Surface Transportation Board (STB) exclusive jurisdiction over rail operations, whether or not they take place entirely within one state. The rail line at issue in this dispute was the Northwest Pacific Railroad line, which extends from Arcata to Lombard, with its geographical center in Willits. Above Willits lies the Eel River Division of the line, and below is the Russian River Division. The line, in serious disrepair, secured state funds for repair work on the Russian River Division. NCRA indicated it would issue a categorical exemption for the repair work, but would prepare an EIR for the freight operations within that Division. As part of a 2008 settlement with the City of Novato, which had challenged the notice of exemption, the parties entered a consent decree requiring NCRA to perform certain work and comply with CEQA in doing so. In 2011, NCRA certified an EIR approving resumed freight rail service from Willits to Lombard. Petitioners challenged this certification and sought to halt rail operations pending additional CEQA review. In 2013, NCRA passed a resolution rescinding the EIR certification, stating that the EIR was not a legal prerequisite to NWPRC’s operation of the line, given STB’s exclusive jurisdiction over the line. Petitioners challenged the railroads’ claim of federal preemption, and argued in the alternative that the railroads were estopped from asserting preemption given their prior agreement to comply with CEQA. The court held that a state statute requiring environmental review as a condition to railroad operations is preempted by ICCTA. The court only found support for its holding in lower court decisions, but noted there was no contradictory federal appellate court decision. In concluding that ICCTA expressly preempts CEQA review of proposed railroad operations, the court distinguished the recent Third District decision in Town of Atherton v. California High Speed Rail Authority (2014) 228 Cal.App.4th 314, which required CEQA analysis as part of the process for determining where to place a rail line, noting that the issue in Atherton differed from this case’s issue of resuming rail operations. The court was not persuaded that the market participant doctrine, which counteracts preemption where government agencies act as property owners or purchasers, applied here. The court noted that the doctrine is typically used defensively. Even if the decision to prepare an EIR were proprietary, a writ proceeding by a private citizen’s group challenging the adequacy of the review would be regulatory in nature and would not be part of that proprietary action. The court acknowledged that its holding contradicted Atherton, and respectfully disagreed with the Atherton court’s analysis of the market participant doctrine.

On the issue of judicial estoppel, the court noted that estoppel was an equitable doctrine and thus its application was discretionary. Regardless, the court found NCRA and NWPRC never asserted a contrary position on federal preemption in a prior judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding. Even if the elements of judicial estoppel were satisfied, the trial court had declined to apply the doctrine due to policy reasons, stating that estoppel would burden STB’s exclusive jurisdiction to regulate freight operations. Neither could NCRA’s preparation of an EIR estop its current position that no EIR was required, as there was no final ruling on the merits on the issue of federal preemption of CEQA with respect to railroad operations.