Case 137

Knowles v. United States Coast Guard, 1997 WL 151397 (S.D.N.Y. 1997).

This case arose out of the U.S. Coast Guard's decision to close its Support Center on Governors Island, New York. Plaintiffs, Knowles et al., alleged that defendants, the Coast Guard, failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), Freedom of Information Act, and other Federal ethics laws and regulations. Plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the Coast Guard from executing its plan to discontinue all of its operations on Governors Island. Following a decision in 1996 denying the preliminary injunction, both plaintiffs and defendants filed cross motions for summary judgment. Among the important issues raised in this case were segmentation, the integration of an agency's NEPA and NHPA obligations, and the use of an independent contractor to prepare NEPA documentation.

Plaintiffs claimed that the Coast Guard improperly "segmented" its environmental review process in order to avoid NEPA's requirement of preparing an Environmental Impact Statement because they saw it as a foreseeable event that the Coast Guard would "dispose" of the property after the Support Center was closed. Therefore, they argued, the actions of disposal and closure were interdependent. The court stated that "only when a given project effectively commits decision makers to a future course of action will this form of linkage argue strongly for joint environmental evaluation." Based on the evidence presented, the district court found that the closure of the Support Center did not commit the property either to disposal or to the sale and re-development anticipated by plaintiffs. In view of these circumstances, the court determined that the Coast Guard did not segment the project in order to circumvent any provisions of NEPA.

Plaintiffs further claimed that the Coast Guard violated NEPA and NHPA not only by failing to perform the review processes concurrently, but also by signing the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) prior to concluding NHPA Section 106 review process. Additionally, plaintiffs complained that there was no public participation in the development of the Programmatic Agreement (PA) under Section 106 addressing the effects of the closure action. The Council on Environmental Quality's (CEQ) regulations call for the integration of the NEPA requirements "with other planning and environmental review procedures required by law or by agency practice so that all such procedures run concurrently rather than consecutively." The court also noted that NHPA's implementing regulations contemplate that NEPA and NHPA review should be integrated closely, but both the Section 106 and CEQ regulations allow for phased compliance and implementation of reviews in a flexible manner. The record showed that the Coast Guard had initiated Section 106 review at the outset of the NEPA process and had negotiated with various parties to finalize a PA and formulate caretaker provisions before issuing the FONSI. It also indicated that individuals, organizations, and local authorities participated in the NEPA process.

In summary, the court concluded that the Coast Guard was not required to complete the Section 106 process before issuing the FONSI, and to the extent that plaintiffs complained about the level of public participation in the PA, the court stated that this agreement is not an "environmental document" subject to the public notice provisions of 40 C.F.R. Section 1506(b).

Plaintiffs also questioned the Coast Guard's use of non-agency personnel, independent contractors, to prepare the environmental studies, and asserted that this violated NEPA. The court dismissed this contention, stating that a Government agency is permitted to use outside consultants to prepare environmental documents provided that the agency independently reviews and verifies the underlying data.

After reviewing plaintiffs' multiple arguments, the court found that they had failed to demonstrate the existence of any material issue of disputed fact, and, dismissing the complaint, awarded summary judgment in favor of the Coast Guard.

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