Judge Charlotte Sweeney, nominated by President Biden to the District of Colorado, ruled that a citizens’ group and a county can proceed with their claims that a federal agency has improperly delayed taking action against limestone mining that they claim is harming “health, safety,” and the environment. The November 2022 ruling was in Glenwood Springs Citizens’ Alliance v US DOI, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 203525 (D. Colo. Nov. 8, 2022).
What is the case about?
For a number of years, a private mining company has mined and removed limestone and other minerals from a quarry on federal land in Garfield County, Colorado. Both the county and a citizens’ group have contended that the mining, particularly as expanded in recent years, “continues to…harm the surrounding area” and jeopardize health, safety, and people’s use of the environment. The county issued a violation notice against the company in 2019 for violating its limited permit to do some mining. The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began an investigation in 2019, but had taken no specific action as of 2022.
Both the citizens’ group and the county sued the agency in 2022. They contended that BLM should immediately determine that the expanded mining was improper and shut it down, or that the agency had delayed its investigation and should promptly complete it and then act against the mining. BLM filed a motion to dismiss the complaint as a matter of law, without giving the groups and the county the opportunity to prove their claims.
What did the judge decide and why is it important?
Judge Sweeney agreed not to take immediate action to stop the mining, but refused to dismiss the complaint that the agency had improperly delayed the investigation and should complete it promptly. Based on the complaint and the record so far, she explained, the plaintiffs had made a strong case of “extensive” and “unreasonable” delay by BLM that violated its legal obligations.
In addition, she continued, the record so far demonstrates that the “failure to complete” the investigation has caused “severe consequences for the people and land” in the area, including “dire…environmental and public health effects.” For example, the mining causes the company to “remove and transport up to 20 trips a day of large mining haul trucks through residential neighborhoods,” harming residents. Judge Sweeney allowed the case to proceed, strongly suggesting that BLM finish its investigation expeditiously and ordering a status report within 14 days of completion.
Judge Sweeney’s ruling not only helps protect public health and the environment in the Garfield County area, but also establishes important precedent about the legal obligation of a federal agency to investigate and act in cases of alleged environmental harm due to mining. This decision by Judge Sweeney, who is the “first openly LGBT federal judge” in Colorado, serves as an example of an important ruling by a fair-minded federal judge nominated by President Biden. It is also a reminder of the importance of confirming more such judges promptly to our federal courts.