A state court judge ruled Wednesday that the court has no authority to review the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to issue a water quality certification for a proposed gravel mining operation in Watson.
The ruling paves the way for Southern Aggregates to pursue the federal wetlands permit it needs from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a 230-acre mining project next to Oak Hills subdivision on La. 16.
State District Judge Donald Johnson, of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, said state law gives courts the authority to review only select kinds of DEQ decisions. Certifications like the one issued to Southern Aggregates are not among the types of appealable decisions listed in the statutes.
Lawyers for DEQ and Southern Aggregates said if the Legislature had intended to make certifications appealable, it would have included them alongside final permit actions, final enforcement actions and declaratory rulings.
The law equates certification denials and conditional certifications with permit actions, but it is silent as to unconditioned certifications like the one DEQ issued to Southern Aggregates.
Attorneys for the neighborhood group argued that allowing DEQ to grant unconditioned certifications that cannot be appealed prevents residents from challenging whether DEQ fulfilled its constitutional duty to protect the environment. Adam Babich, an attorney with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, said DEQ punted on its obligation to conduct a cost-benefit analysis for the proposed mining site, focusing instead only on whether the project would comply with state water quality standards.
“They said, ‘Tell the Corps . The Corps will do an analysis,’” Babich said. “But the state has given DEQ that responsibility.”
DEQ attorney Courtney Burdette said if the state agency refused to grant a water quality certification based on something other than state water quality concerns, it would violate both state and federal laws and likely face a lawsuit from Southern Aggregates.
“We can’t usurp the federal process,” Burdette said.
Johnson said the remedy should not depend on the wording used.
“Regardless of what is declared today, these matters continue to arise so the law needs to be clarified,” Johnson said.
Babich said he will discuss the remaining legal options with his clients — the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Save Our Hills neighborhood group and resident O’Neil Couvillon — before deciding whether to appeal.