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Sierra Club v. Flowers

August 4, 2003

SIERRA CLUB ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ROBERT B. FLOWERS, CHIEF OF ENGINEERS, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge

Document Nos.: 9, 10, 11

MEMORANDUM OPINION

TRANSFERRING THE ACTION TO THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the court on the defendants' motion to transfer venue to the Southern District of Florida. The plaintiffs are the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the National Parks Conservation Association. They bring suit against the Army Corps of Engineers ("the Corps") and the Fish and Wildlife Service ("the Service") (collectively,"the defendants") for allegedly violating several federal environmental statutes by issuing mining permits for certain Everglades wetlands in southern Florida. The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief setting aside the Corps' decision to issue the permits and enjoining the Corps from authorizing further mining until the defendants meet the relevant statutory requirements. In response, the defendants filed an answer and a motion to transfer the action to the Southern District of Florida. Because the plaintiffs could have brought this action in the Southern District of Florida, and considerations of convenience and the interest of justice weigh in favor of transferring the action to that district, the court grants the defendants' motion.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Factual Background

According to the plaintiffs, Florida contains some of the most imperilled ecosystems in the United States. Compl. ¶ 44. The Everglades ecosystem, which spans the southern tip of Florida and most of Florida Bay, is home to a large number of rare species of wildlife, including wading birds such as the endangered wood stork. Id. ¶ 46. Over the past 100 years, however, the Everglades ecosystem has suffered as a result of human development. Id. ¶ 47.

In 2000, the president signed legislation authorizing the Corps to initiate a Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan ("CERP") for the South Florida ecosystem. Id. ¶ 50. The South Florida ecosystem includes the Lake Belt area, a 60,000-acre area of short hydroperiod wetlands, portions of which are adjacent to the Everglades National Park. Id. ¶¶ 49, 51; Defs.' Mot. to Transfer ("Defs.' Mot.") at 3; Answer ¶ 49. The Corps designed the CERP to restore and protect the water resources of central and southern Florida by, among other things, improving the quality of water discharged into the system and by removing internal levees and other man-made structures. Compl. ¶¶ 50-51; Defs.' Mot. at 3. The restoration activities of the CERP include the creation of the Lake Belt Storage Area, which will use reservoirs to store untreated water to restore the hydrology of the Everglades National Park. Compl. ¶ 52.

Meanwhile, at the state level, the Miami-Dade County Lake Belt Plan Implementation Committee issued the Miami-Dade County Lake Belt Plan. Defs.' Mot. at 2. The Lake Belt Plan, adopted by the Florida legislature, recommended the creation of a freshwater lake system to replace the expanding"checkerboard mosaic" of quarried lakes. Id. Toward that end, the Lake Belt Plan authorized the excavation of limerock and sand from parts of the Lake Belt area subject to a per-ton fee, which in turn would be used to acquire mitigation land. Id. at 3.

In keeping with CERP water-storage proposals and pursuant to the Lake Belt Plan, the Corps proposed issuing a series of 50-year mining permits affecting 15,000 acres of wetlands in the Lake Belt area. Id. at 2-3; Compl. ¶ 53; Defs.' Reply at 11. In early 1999, the Corps issued a draft environmental impact statement ("EIS") indicating that the proposed mining would affect 15,800 acres in the Lake Belt area. Compl. ¶ 54. In response, several federal natural-resources agencies submitted comments that identified environmental risks associated with the draft EIS. Id. ¶ 55. In May 2000, the Corps issued a final EIS that, in the plaintiffs' view, failed to address the concerns of the federal agencies and other commentators regarding the draft EIS. Id. ¶¶ 55-62. In June 2000, the Corps released a proposal to issue several 50-year permits affecting more than 10,000 acres in the Lake Belt area. Id. ¶ 64. In addition, because the Corps believed the permits would have no effect on the endangered wood stork, the Corps indicated that it would not engage in formal Endangered Species Act ("ESA") consultations with the Service. Id. ¶ 65. The Service responded by pointing out that the Lake Belt area was a foraging site for endangered wood storks and informed the Corps that it must comply with ESA consultation requirements. Id. ¶¶ 71-72.

In March 2001, the Corps revised its proposal by reducing the duration of the permits from 50 to 10 years and the area of impact from 10,000 to approximately 5,000 acres. Id. ¶ 76; Answer ¶ 86. According to the plaintiffs, the revised proposal again met with criticism from several federal agencies, as well as from conservation organizations and private citizens. Id. ¶¶ 77-78. This time, however, the Service concurred in the Corps' conclusion that the permits would not adversely affect the endangered wood stork. Id. ¶ 82. In April 2002, the Corps issued a final record of decision on the May 2001 EIS in which it incorporated the agency's March 2001 revised proposal. Id. ¶ 86; Answer ¶ 86.

B. Procedural History

On August 20, 2002, the plaintiffs filed their complaint. First, the plaintiffs allege that in deciding to issue the permits, the Corps violated the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1344 et seq.; the Migratory Bird Treaty Act ("MBTA"), 16 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.; the ESA, 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq.; the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq.; and the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. § 706 et seq. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 91, 93, 100. Second, the plaintiffs allege that the Service violated the ESA and the APA when it concurred with the Corps' finding that no ESA consultation was necessary before issuing the permits. Compl. ¶ 2. On October 21, 2002, the defendants filed an answer ...


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