Environmental Law


For decades, CPM has fought for environmental justice. CPM is nationally recognized for prosecuting and defending actions on behalf of families, businesses, communities, and government entities injured as the result of pollution, chemical releases, and contamination of drinking water supplies and other parts of our communities. 

Protection of our environment is a core belief of CPM. We are committed to advocating for environmental justice. All too often, people powerless to protect themselves are exposed to environmental contamination and disasters, resulting in serious personal injury and property damage. CPM works to hold wrongdoers responsible for their actions.

Environmental justice for the firm goes beyond advocating for clean air, water, and soil. The firm has successfully litigated to protect disadvantaged communities and those disproportionately impacted by the harms of pollution, especially lead contamination. The firm also works to secure clean, safe, and accessible outdoor spaces, to make sure that the effort put into protecting the environment leads to public spaces that can be utilized by all Californians. In recognition of the role all of us play in protecting our planet, CPM represents a wide range of clients in environmental litigation, ranging from water districts throughout the state, to non-profits dedicated to protecting the environment, to local governments seeking to recover for their costs in responding to environmental harms, to victims of wildfires throughout the state.

In addition to our litigation successes, our attorneys have been honored for their environmental stewardship. As a sitting Congressman, Pete McCloskey served six years as Congressional Delegate to the International Whaling Conference and as Congressional Advisor to the Law of the Sea Treaty Delegation. McCloskey served as co-chair of the first Earth Day in 1970 and is a co-author of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Presently, McCloskey serves on the Advisory Council to the American Land Conservancy. 

CPM's founding partner Joe Cotchett has served on and chaired the California State Parks Commission. In 2019, Joe Cotchett and Justin Berger were honored as Consumer Attorneys of the Year by Consumer Attorneys of California for their 20-year fight against the lead paint industry. After years of a trial and appeals, the case resulted in a $305 million dollar settlement that will protect tens of thousands of California children from lead paint poisoning.

In 2019, Green Foothills awarded Cotchett with its Nature’s Inspiration Award “for his lifetime of servitude for justice and dedication to preserving the San Mateo coastline.” 

For more information, or to discuss a potential legal matter, please follow up with Kelly Weil.

Noteworthy Cases

Noteworthy Cases

San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority ("SLDMWA")

On February 21, 2023, the Eastern District of California, Judge Drozd presiding, issued an order granting summary judgment in favor of Defendants SLDMWA, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Grassland Water District in a citizen suit originally filed in November 2011 by a group consisting of various fishing associations and Friends of the River. The case is Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Ass’n et al. v. Conant et al., Case No. 2:11-cv-02980-DAD-CKD.

In 2011, CPM had been approached by the SLDMWA (the “Authority”) seeking its assistance in defending against this suit, which alleged that the Authority’s operation of the San Luis Drain (the “Drain”) in California’s Central Valley was in violation of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). The Drain is a water project that collects water used to irrigate agricultural land through an underground capture system, and then moves the collected drainage water through a concrete-lined conveyance for many miles before it dispenses into Mud Slough. Plaintiffs alleged that the Authority had been discharging pollutants through the Project that end up in the San Joaquin River and ultimately the San Francisco Bay Delta without complying with the permit requirements under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”). Since the suit was filed, and CPM attorneys have spent over 11 years defending the Authority, which has involved extensive motion practice, including multiple cross-motions for summary judgment and an appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

A cornerstone of the CWA is that the ‘discharge of any pollutant’ from a ‘point source’ into navigable waters of the United States is unlawful unless the discharge is made according to the terms of an NPDES permit obtained from either the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) or from an authorized state agency. However, there are exceptions to this rule including, as relevant here, discharges composed entirely of return flows from irrigated agriculture or agricultural stormwater. Plaintiffs contended these exceptions did not apply because the irrigation return flows the Drain was designed to carry were co-mingled with allegedly non-exempt flows, specifically groundwater seepage from adjacent wildlife preserves, sediments deposited in the Drain over time by the agricultural waters it carried, distant rainwater and groundwater, and alleged discharges from a solar facility.

After the case was returned to the District Court from the 9th Circuit, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. Resolving those motions required the Court to determine the scope of the CWA’s agricultural return flows exception, guided by the 9th Circuit’s prior opinion, which had confirmed that the term irrigated agriculture as used in the exception must be understood broadly, and would include discharges from irrigated agriculture that do not contain additional discharges from activities unrelated to crop production. Further, relying upon dictionary definitions, the district court reasoned that for an activity to relate to crop production, it must merely have reference to or concern crop production. The issue therefore was whether any of the sources identified by plaintiffs in fact was an additional discharge from an activity unrelated to crop production. Notably, the district court further reasoned that the term discharges meant a point source, in the sense of the discernible confined and discrete conveyance and would not include nonpoint sources of pollutants. In short, based on the guidance provided by the 9th Circuit’s opinion, the court reasoned that the Authority must establish that the alleged sources of pollutants identified by plaintiffs, which were purportedly co-mingling with the flows in the Drain, were not added from an extra or supplementary point source unrelated to the Drain’s overall drainage function.

The court then analyzed each of the alleged nonexempt flows. The first 2 sources, seepage from adjacent lands, including wildlife preserves, and sediment within the Drain itself, were found both to be nonpoint sources and related to crop production, and so did not give rise to liability. The other 2 sources, seepage and runoff from the solar project and upstream non-irrigated lands, both purportedly occurred within the drainage area before collected drainage water is piped into the Drain. With respect to the solar facility, the court accepted Defendants’ evidence establishing that any water use related to the facility did not penetrate to the underlying agricultural drains. Further, any upwelling of groundwater collected in the drain was related to crop production, not the solar project. Similarly, alleged discharges from highways, residences, and other non-irrigated lands in the drainage area, which essentially were rainfall or stormwater runoff, are classic examples of nonpoint sources. As such, none of these sources voided the agricultural exemption.

Finally, the court recognized that an overly technical reading of the exception finding it inapplicable whenever any pollutant added to the Project did not directly arise from water irrigating active farmland would have an absurd result. The Project’s operation of collecting water through subsurface tile drains and moving it through agricultural canals is emblematic of how irrigated agriculture works generally. Requiring a NPDES permit because of their existing operation would effectively wipe out the exemption for return flows from irrigated agriculture and put farmers who rely on irrigated agriculture, as opposed to natural rainfall, at a severe disadvantage, which is precisely what the exception was intended to prevent.

The CPM team was lead by Julie Fieber, working with attorneys for the other Defendants.

Alec L., et al. v. Lisa Jackson, et al.

CPM represents youth plaintiffs from across the nation, as well as Kids vs. Global Warming, a non-profit organization committed to educating youth about climate change, and WildEarth Guardians, an organization dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife.  The plaintiffs are suing six federal agencies, seeking a declaration that: the atmosphere is a Public Trust resource; the United States government has an obligation to preserve and protect the atmosphere; and the United States government has violated fiduciary duties as a trustee of the atmosphere by contributing to and allowing unsafe amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. The plaintiffs also seek an injunction requiring the defendants to take immediate action to cause U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to decline by at least 6% a year beginning in 2013, prepare an annual greenhouse gas accounting or inventory of all GHG emissions originated by the United States, prepare an annual carbon budget, and prepare a climate recovery plan. The action is venued in the United States District Court District of Colombia, before the Honorable Robert L. Wilkins. The action was filed in May, 2011 and has since attracted the attention of various industry intervenors, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the fossil fuel industry.

Avila Beach

San Luis Obispo County Superior Court
CPM represented homeowners and businesses against Union Oil Company in claims arising from massive leaks of crude oil and refined petroleum products from underground pipelines beneath the coastal town of Avila Beach, California.  CPM obtained full recoveries for all of its clients and its work lead to the complete remediation and rehabilitation of Avila Beach.

Cambria Community Services District v. Chevron

San Luis Obispo Superior Court
CPM successfully represented the Cambria Community Services District against Chevron in an action arising from the pollution of Cambria’s water supply resulting from leaks of gasoline and MTBE from Chevron’s underground storage tanks. 

Santa Maria Residential Pollution Cases

Santa Barbara County Superior Court
In a series of cases, CPM successfully represented homeowners whose homes were built on top of oil field wastes left behind in the Santa Maria Valley Operating Unit, an oil field run by defendants Union Oil, Conoco Phillips, and Kerr-McGee.   

Friends of Del Norte, et al. v. State of California Department of Transportation, et al.

Del Norte County Superior Court
This a case of rivers versus roads. Defendant State of California Department of Transportation (“Caltrans”) has chosen to endanger a Wild and Scenic River in the Smith River National Recreation Area to benefit large commercial trucks. Caltrans approved a project captioned “197/199 Safe STAA Access Project” (the “197/199 Project”) to allow major modifications to segments of State Highways 197 and 199 for the purpose of allowing access by large STAA trucks. With this approval, Caltrans failed to meet fundamental requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Smith River is a profound natural resource, as one of the crown jewels of the National Wild and Scenic River system. CPM's clients challenge Caltrans’s approval of the 197/199 Project and are committed to taking all possible steps to preserve the unique and precious resources impacted by this Project--community water sources, world class sport fishing, and critical habitat for several endangered species, and remarkable scenic and aesthetic values.

Bess Bair, et al. v. State of California Department of Transportation, et al.

CPM represents various North Coast residents and non-profit corporations who successfully blocked a road widening project approved by the State of California Department of Transportation (“Caltrans”),  which would have killed or seriously harmed hundreds of old-growth redwood trees and endangered species in Richardson Grove State Park, 200 miles north of San Francisco. CPM filed federal and state litigation to protect the Grove.

Howard McConnell, et al. v. PacifiCorp, Inc.

CPM represented various Yurok and Karuk tribe members and Klamath Riverkeeper, a nonprofit public benefit corporation, in an action to prevent the ongoing pollution and contamination of the Klamath River, one the greatest rivers in California. Home of the historic Yurok and Karuck tribes, for hundreds of years, the Klamath River has been integral to the cultural, religious, and economic lives of these tribes. Over the past eight decades, dams were built on the Klamath. These dams, currently owned and operated by PacifiCorp, harmed the Klamath River environment by disrupting water flows, raising water temperatures, and ultimately contributing to growth of a toxic blue-green algae called microcystis aeruginosa, a species of cyanobacteria. Toxins released from the algae’s blooms significantly reduced the Klamath fishery population, limiting the catch of both the tribe members and commercial fisherman and jeopardizing their economic survival. Likewise, the development of the algae generated a potent liver toxin and tumor promoter known as microcystin.

Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations, et al., v. Donald R. Glaser, et. al.

CPM represents the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, an organization consisting of water agencies representing approximately 2,100,000 acres of 29 federal and exchange water service contractors within the western San Joaquin Valley, San Benito, and Santa Clara Counties, alleging the defendants operated the Grassland Bypass Project in violation of the Clean Water Act by discharging pollutants from a point source without a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System ("NPDES") Permit.



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