On February 22, 2018, the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Sacramento, issued a judgment granting petition for writ of mandate and declaratory and injunctive relief (Judgment) to suspend further chemical activities undertaken by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to control or eradicate pests under the Statewide Plant Pest Prevention and Management Program (the Project) until CDFA has certified a Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) that corrects violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) identified in the court’s ruling.
CDFA is charged with promoting and protecting the state’s agricultural industry, and preventing the introduction and spread of injurious insect or animal pests, plant diseases, and noxious weeds. Cal. Food & Agr. Code §§ 4011 401.51 403. CDFA developed the Project to control targeted pests or pathogens, and includes activities such as pest rating (evaluation of a pest’s environmental, agricultural, and biological significance); identification, detection, and delimitation of new pest populations; pest management response (which may include eradication and/or control of new or existing pest populations); and prevention of the movement of pests into and within California.
The present case was brought after CDFA sought to comply with CEQA by preparing a single PEIR that provides a consolidated set of management practices rather than prepare Environmental Impact Reports (EIR) specific to particular pest management activities. Petitioners alleged that CDFA violated CEQA by certifying the PEIR for the Project and in related proceedings that CDFA violated CEQA by subsequently expanding the Statewide Plant Pest Prevention and Management Program to allow increased use of certain pesticides (Merit 2F and Acelepyrn) for the treatment of Japanese beetles without adequate environmental review.
The numerous CEQA violations identified by the court are set forth in a Consolidated Ruling on Submitted Matters (Consolidated Ruling) issued January 8, 2018, and attached as Exhibit 1 to the Judgment. The Consolidated Ruling discusses the following topics:
- Does the PEIR’s tiering strategy violate CEQA?
- Does CEQA require the Department to issue a Notice of Determination (NOD) anytime is carries out or approves a site-specific activity?
- Does the PEIR contain an adequate project description?
- Does the PEIR contain an adequate description of the baseline environmental setting?
- Does the PEIR fail to adequately analyze environmental impacts?
- Does the PEIR fail to adequately analyze the Project’s cumulative impacts?
- Does the PEIR improperly defer mitigation measures or conceal them as Program Features?
- Does the PEIR fail to adequately consider a range of reasonable alternatives to the Project?
- Did the Department violate CEQA’s notice and consultation requirements?
- Did the Department adequately respond to public comments on the DRAFT PEIR?
- Did the Department properly use addenda to modify the PEIR?
The court found multiple, broad-based issues with the PEIR, including, for example, a decision that the PEIR violates CEQA “because it adopts an unlawful tiering strategy, granting the Department authority to implement a broad range of practices without evaluating the site-specific conditions to determine whether the environmental impacts were covered in the PEIR.” The Consolidated Ruling also discusses particular failures of the PEIR. Additionally, of potential interest is the court’s opinion with regard to whether the PEIR failed to disclose and analyze impacts on sensitive biological resources, which Petitioners argued was based on several grounds: (i) an assumption that spraying “generally” will not occur near sensitive resources and fails to analyze potential impacts from pesticide drift; (ii) a conclusion, without substantial evidence, that the Project will have less-than-significant impacts on sensitive species; (iii) a conclusion, without substantial evidence, that traps and lures will not have significant impacts on non-target species; (iv) the use of improper thresholds of significance for impacts to pollinators and organic farming; and (v) a failure to define, disclose, and analyze impacts on wetlands.
The court did not find issues with the PEIR as it related to CDFA’s spraying assumptions and CDFA’s determinations of potential impacts on sensitive species, pesticide drift, or organic farming. The court likewise rejected Petitioner’s other challenges to the PEIR’s analysis of biological impacts, including the PEIR's analysis of traps/lures and of the species evaluated in the Ecological Risk Assessment (ERA).
The court did, however, agree with Petitioners that the PEIR improperly ignored potentially significant impacts to pollinators. The court stated that the PEIR considered impacts to pollinators significant only if (1) the pollinator species impacted were “special status,” or (2) the impacts would result in a secondary change in the physical environment (such as conversion of land from agricultural to non-agricultural use). The PEIR did not consider whether the Project might adversely impact non-special-status pollinators, despite acknowledging that “healthy pollinator populations are critical to protecting the environmental quality and agricultural resources of the state,” and that “Colony Collapse Disorder” and “pollinator decline” are “ongoing ... serious” problems. The court found that CDFA’s “‘voluntary’ actions to benefit pollinator species are not, by themselves, sufficient to justify the lack of analysis and enforceable mitigation measures for the potentially significant impacts to non-special-status pollinators.”
The immediate effect of this decision is the inability for CDFA to continue “chemical activities … to control or eradicate pests under the [Statewide Plant Pest Prevention and Management] Program except as authorized under CEQA independent of the PEIR.” Should this decision stand, registrants and stakeholders should be interested in whether and how CDFA modifies the PEIR to support its pest control and management activities.