(CN) - A legal challenge to the sale of coal leases in a national grassland should be heard where the land lies, in Wyoming, a federal judge ruled.
The dispute stems from a 2011 federal complaint that WildEarth Guardians and Sierra Club filed against the Bureau of Land Management in the District of Columbia. They accused the agency of having leased thousands of acres of the Thunder Basin National Grassland to strip miners without properly considering the environmental impact such use would have on the land's native species.
The park lies within the Powder River Basin, which the groups call "the largest coal-producing region in the United States." It is home to sensitive populations of golden eagles, black-tailed prairie dogs and greater sage-grouse, according to the complaint.
Both the bureau and the Forest Service, which administers the park, violated the National Environmental Policy Act by relying on a deficient Final Environmental Impact Statement that failed to address groundwater and air quality concerns, the groups said.
"Surface coal mining consumes large areas of land, completely destroying whatever existed on the land prior to mining," the complaint states.
"While the area is mined, it will cease to provide the many benefits of grassland ecosystems important to human life: watershed protection, clean air quality, erosion prevention, soil protection and generation, flood and drought mitigation, recreational opportunities, and other economic benefits tied to intact grasslands. Instead, opening up this land to coal mining will make this tract and surrounding areas unusable for decades, release air and water pollution, harm wildlife and plants, irreversibly destroy habitats, and transform an intact portion of the Thunder Basin National Grassland into an industrial zone that cannot be used for recreational opportunities or other economic purposes."
Chief U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth last week decided that the case belongs in Wyoming.
"Here, the District of Columbia has 'no meaningful ties to the controversy' because the central dispute concerns land located in Wyoming and arises out of acts by BLM in that district," he wrote. "That another action brought by the present plaintiffs regarding other federal Wyoming coal land without reference to the FEIS at issue in this case is currently pending in our district only shows that the minimal requirements of venue may be satisfied here, not that the connection between this forum and the controversy is particularly 'meaningful.' And, that Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar traveled from D.C. to Wyoming to announce the contested actions ... might indicate a substantial interest in the underlying issue in Washington, but could just as easily signify that the issue was important mainly within the state of Wyoming. One plaintiff, Sierra Club, has an office in this district, but only members and staff from other districts participated in the public comment phase of the FEIS process. ... Accordingly, plaintiffs' choice of forum is only worthy of 'diminished consideration,' and thus weighs only weakly against transfer."
Since WildEarth Guardians and Sierra Club have filed other lawsuits challenging the coal leases, Judge Lamberth said that the cases should be heard in a single district.
"Most importantly, the desire to avoid multiplicity of litigation as a result of a single transaction or event weighs heavily in favor of transfer," he wrote. "The Forest Service case addresses two of the same BLM leasing decisions at issue in the present case. ... More importantly, the Forest Service case raises NEPA claims about the FEIS very similar to those raised in the present matter in order to undermine these actions. ... Allowing the two cases to go forward in different districts would create the possibility for conflicting judgments and would unnecessarily squander judicial resources. This 'public' interest weighs heavily in favor of transfer."
Indeed, a Colorado federal judge recently transferred one such lawsuit to Wyoming because "'the challenged project would have substantial impacts on the local economy,' and 'considered as a whole, the magnitude of these local interests weigh heavily in favor of transfer,'" Lamberth wrote.
"The recognition of the significant local interest in this matter does not refute the national importance of the land management, energy, and environmental concerns raised by this case," he added. "It does, however, provide an additional reason to transfer this case to Wyoming."