In We Advocate Through Environmental Review v. County of Siskiyou (2022) 78 Cal. App.5th 683, the Third District Court of Appeal held that Siskiyou County’s environmental analysis of a bottling plant was deficient because the project objectives were too narrow, and because the County failed to recirculate the EIR despite a discrepancy in the estimated carbon dioxide emissions from the draft EIR to the final EIR (FEIR). Though the discrepancy did not change the EIR’s ultimate conclusions, recirculation was necessary to provide the public with meaningful opportunity to review and comment on the project’s environmental impacts. In We Advocate Through Environmental Review v. City of Mount Shasta (April 12, 2022, No. C091012) ___ Cal.App.5th___ [2022 WL 1487832], petitioners challenged city’s approval of wastewater permit for the same project.
Real Party in Interest, Crystal Geyser, purchased a non-operational bottling facility in Siskiyou County in 2013, seeking to revive the plant for beverage production. To initiate the project, Crystal Geyser requested permits from the County to build a caretaker’s residence, and the City of Mount Shasta for discharging wastewater into the City’s sewer system. Both permits were approved.
We Advocate Through Environmental Review and the Winnehem Wintu Tribe sued the County alleging the EIR violated CEQA because it (1) provided an inaccurate description of the project, (2) defined the project’s objectives in an impermissibly narrow manner, (3) improperly evaluated several of the project’s impacts, and (4) approved the project though it would be inconsistent with the County’s and City’s general plans.
The trial court rejected all of petitioners’ claims. This appeal followed.
The Court of Appeal’s Decision
The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court in part, holding in the published portions of the decision that the project objectives were too narrow and that recirculation was required because the FEIR estimated that the project would generate significantly more carbon dioxide emissions than disclosed in the DEIR. The fact that the DEIR concluded that this impact was significant and unavoidable did not mean the increase in greenhouse gas emissions was “insignificant” under CEQA.
The Court agreed with Appellant’s contention that the EIR defined the project objectives too narrowly, because the County defined the project objectives in a manner that precluded all alternatives other than the proposed project. For example, one objective was to “site the proposed facility at the Plant . . . to take advantage of the existing building, production well, and availability and high quality of existing spring water on the property.” Another objective aimed to “utilize the full production capacity of the existing plant based on its current size.” According to the Court, this narrow approach was unacceptable because it transformed the alternatives section of the EIR into an “empty formality,” rather than served the purpose of enabling meaningful environmental review of a project. The Court concluded the County’s error was prejudicial because it foreclosed viable alternatives.
Climate Change Impacts Analysis
Appellants challenged the EIR’s discussion and mitigation of climate change impacts, arguing (1) the County failed to recirculate the EIR to address the discrepancy in carbon dioxide emissions estimations between the DEIR and the FEIR, (2) the County failed to analyze foreseeable emissions from “preform” bottles, and (3) the EIR’s mitigation measures were not properly amended to reflect the emissions change from the DEIR to the FEIR.
The Court agreed that the County violated CEQA by failing to recirculate the EIR after changing the greenhouse gas emissions estimate from 35,486 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year in the DEIR, to 61,281 metric tons in the FEIR. The County argued recirculation was unnecessary because the impact remained above the “significant and unavoidable” threshold in both versions of the EIR. The Court held that the estimated increase of over 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year between the versions was significant enough to require recirculation, though it did not change the EIR’s ultimate conclusions. Failing to recirculate “wrongly deprived the public of a meaningful opportunity to comment on a project’s substantial environmental impacts.”
The Court rejected Appellants’ other arguments regarding climate change impacts. On the subject of “preforms,” the Court rejected Appellants’ argument because they failed to concretely show that “each preform that Crystal Geyser purchases for the project would necessarily be a preform that would not otherwise have been produced.” Additionally, the Court held that the mitigation measures were valid and enforceable because the County revised and reevaluated mitigation measures to reflect increased emissions in the FEIR.
— Jordan Wright