The California Supreme Court’s ruling on Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach decided two important issues regarding the interpretation and application of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). First, the Court decided the city of Manhattan Beach was not required to prepare an environmental impact report (EIR) under CEQA before enacting a ban on local retailers’ distribution of plastic bags to their customers. Even more significant, the Court decided the plastic bag industry group bringing the lawsuit had standing to pursue the litigation.
An industry group called Save the Bag Coalition filed a lawsuit to overturn the ban enacted in July 2008. The coalition argued that paper bags have a greater negative effect on the environment than plastic bags and demanded an EIR be done before the ban went into effect. The Court ruled on the merits that the city was not required to prepare an EIR before adopting the ordinance banning plastic bags. The decision explains the legal threshold for requiring an EIR on a project or ordinance. In the unanimous 24-page ruling, Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote, “Substantial evidence and common sense support the city’s determination that its ordinance would have no significant environmental effect.”
On the standing issue, the Court addressed the key issue of industry group standing for CEQA cases. The lower courts had rejected the city’s argument that the industry group failed to make the enhanced showing required by Waste Management of Alameda County, Inc. v. County of Alameda (2000) 79 Cal.App.4th 1223, 1238 (Waste Management) for corporate entities to bring a citizen suit. In a significant decision, the Court here disapproved Waste Management’s holding that corporations are subject to heightened scrutiny when they file citizen suits. In deciding whether the industry group qualified for “public interest” standing under CEQA, the Court ruled against the city and found the industry group plaintiffs did have standing to pursue the CEQA challenge.
In making this decision, the Court disassociated itself with environmental standing rules established by the federal courts. The Court rejected the city’s argument that CEQA should only be invoked by those who have environmental, rather than economic interests. Although the industry group here has a commercial interest in overturning the ban, the Court ruled that businesses and other institutional litigants have as much right to file CEQA lawsuits as individuals do.