California may impose its own environmental standards on a controversial strip-mining operation on federal forest land along the Big Sur coast, the Supreme Court decided Tuesday in a ruling that could affect millions of acres of federal land.
The 5-4 vote by the justices, considered a victory for environmentalists, reversed a decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Delighted officials in California and other states said that the ruling clears the way for them to enforce strict regulations on federal land when they believe the federal government has been lax.
"This is probably the most important state-federal decision concerning federal lands that we've had in 10 years," said Arizona State University law professor John Leshy, who wrote a court brief on behalf of 19 states supporting California's appeal. The federal government owns 44% of the land in California and one-third of the land nationwide, according to court briefs.
California Coastal Commission officials said that they will impose strict safeguards to protect the forest and streams before allowing resumption of the strip-mining operation on Mt. Pico Blanco south of Carmel.
"You can be sure we will look strictly and carefully at their plan to continue mining in the area," Peter Douglas, the commission's executive director, said.
In its decision, the high court rejected the contention of the Reagan Administration and the mining company that federal lands are off limits to all state regulation.
The court said that its reading of federal land use laws did not show "an intention to preempt all state regulation."
Opinion by O'Connor
" . . . The state is not seeking to determine basic uses of federal lands," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court. "Rather, it is seeking to regulate a given mining use so that it is carried out in a more environmentally sensitive and resource-protective fashion."
The ruling did not specify when a state has adequate grounds to intervene in an enterprise on federal land. California had contended that its intervention was justified because federal regulations are too lenient and because the strip-mining operation would harm the sensitive coastal environment outside the federal land.
Based on the decision, attorneys for environmental groups and state officials said that they now may try to limit mining, grazing and timber harvesting on millions of acres of federal lands.
"Before, the only opportunity states had to influence things was to lobby the federal agency--in this case, the Forest Service. Now, the miners will have to deal with the states head-on," said Leshy, an Interior Department official in the Jimmy Carter Administration.
The strip mine in question was operated by Steven Woolpert, the 33-year-old president of the Granite Rock Co., which seeks to mine limestone from the scenic peak on the California coast.
Acting under the 1872 Mining Act, Woolpert's family staked 32 mining claims in the Los Padres National Forest and got permission from the U.S. Forest Service in 1981 to begin mining. The huge vein of high-quality limestone could keep miners busy for 50 years, Woolpert has said.
But, two years later, the California Coastal Commission told the mining firm that it would have to cease work until it obtained a state permit and met stricter California standards. The mine was inside the five-mile coastal strip designated for special environmental protection, state officials said, adding that they feared mining would deface the mountain and pollute the Little Sur River.
Mining Firm Sued
Attorneys for Granite Rock filed suit, contending that the state had no right to impose its standards on federal lands. In 1985, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the company. Attorneys for California appealed to the Supreme Court.
O'Connor stressed that she was not giving the state a green light to block all mining. Rather, it now has the authority to "impose reasonable environmental regulation," she wrote.
O'Connor was joined by an unusual combination of court liberals and conservatives: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Harry Blackmun.
In dissent, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., joined by John Paul Stevens, said that the federal government has broad and final authority over federal lands. "This abdication of federal control over the use of federal land is unprecedented," Powell wrote. Dissenting on narrower grounds in the case (California Coastal Commission vs. Granite Rock Co., 85--1200) were Justices Antonin Scalia and Byron R. White.
Although the decision will make it harder for his company to resume mining, Woolpert said he was pleased that the ruling had made it clear that mining may continue.
Can't Prohibit Mining
"It says they can merely impose environmental conditions that are reasonable, which is how we planned to operate in the first place," he said. "It also tells the Coastal Commission that they cannot prohibit mining on federal lands."
But Douglas, the coastal commission official, said the environmental standards will be tough. "We will insist on conditions that protect the coastal zone," he said. "I can't venture to say whether the company will be able to live with them."