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City of New York v. United States Department of Transportation

decided: August 10, 1983.


Appeal from the May 6, 1982, judgment of the District Court for the Southern District of New York (Abraham D. Sofaer, Judge) invalidating in part Department of Transportation Regulation HM-164 governing the highway transportation of large quantities of radioactive materials. 539 F. Supp. 1237 (S.D.N.Y. 1982).

Oakes, Newman, and Pratt, Circuit Judges. Oakes, Circuit Judge, dissenting.

Author: Newman

NEWMAN, Circuit Judge:

Every age has experienced scientific advances. A distinguishing feature of our era is the effort the scientific community is making to quantify the risks that seem inevitably to accompany the results of technological progress. The availability of this data has doubtless played a part in raising public consciousness about the mixed blessings of "progress," and public concern has led to rigorous governmental regulation. These trends, in turn, have brought before the courts controversies that present old issues in new contexts of unusual complexity. In determining whether regulatory actions conform to statutory requirements, courts are now obliged to review agency consideration of sophisticated data concerning the potential gravity of adverse consequences and the probability of their occurrence. This assessment of risk lies at the heart of this appeal, which involves a challenge to a federal regulation designed to reduce the risk from the transportation of radioactive materials. The United States Department of Transportation ("DOT" or "the Department") appeals from the May 6, 1982, judgment of the District Court for the Southern District of New York (Abraham D. Sofaer, Judge) declaring invalid, in part, regulations promulgated by DOT to govern the transportation of large quantities of radioactive materials by highway. 539 F. Supp. 1237 (S.D.N.Y. 1982). For reasons set out in detail below, we reverse and remand the matter for entry of a judgment upholding the regulations.


The challenged DOT regulations can best be understood in light of developments preceding their issuance. In early 1976, the City of New York amended its health code to prohibit the transportation of spent nuclear fuel and other large quantities of radioactive material through the City without a Certificate of Emergency Transport from the Commissioner of Health. See N.Y. City Health Code § 175.111 [ l ] (Jan. 15, 1976). The amendment of the City's Health Code effectively banned the use of motor vehicles to ship spent fuel from nuclear reactors operating on Long Island because all roads from Long Island pass through New York City. Since 1976, spent nuclear fuel has been removed from Long Island by barge across the Long Island Sound to New London, Connecticut.

The Brookhaven National Laboratories, which operates a reactor on Long Island, responded to New York City's action by asking DOT to declare the amendment preempted by the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act (HMTA), 49 U.S.C. §§ 1801-1812 (1976 & Supp. V 1981).*fn1 Section 105(a) of HMTA authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to promulgate rules governing the routing of shipments containing hazardous materials including radioactive materials. 49 U.S.C. § 1804(a). Section 112(a) of HMTA provides that any state or local regulation inconsistent with federal regulations is preempted. 49 U.S.C. § 1811(a).

In an "Inconsistency Ruling" published in April 1978, DOT found that HMTA did not preempt the amendment of the New York City Health Code. 43 Fed. Reg. 16,954 (Apr. 20, 1978). DOT reasoned that, although HMTA authorized the Secretary to develop national rules for the routing of nuclear materials, the Secretary had not yet exercised that authority. Consequently, in DOT's view, municipalities like New York City were free to enact their own routing rules, including extreme routing requirements such as a ban on the shipment of nuclear materials through densely populated urban areas.*fn2

As a consequence of restrictions placed on the transportation of nuclear materials by New York City and numerous other jurisdictions across the country, DOT decided to investigate whether federal rules governing highway carriers of radioactive materials might be needed. In an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking published in August 1978, DOT expressed its concern that the various, inconsistent safety regulations imposed by state and local authorities might in fact diminish the overall safety of the transportation of nuclear materials. See 43 Fed. Reg. 36,492 (Aug. 17, 1978). In this Advance Notice, DOT outlined several proposals for regulating the highway transportation of radioactive materials at the federal level and invited comments on these proposals as well as on the threshold question, "Should radioactive materials be subject to more stringent Federal highway routing requirements than now imposed?" Id. at 36, 493-94.*fn3 From the start, DOT indicated its intention to limit its proposed rulemaking to highway routing, which it identified as the mode of transportation that "offers the largest number of routing possibilities and the greatest access to population centers . . . [while] fac[ing] immediate and significant disparities in safety requirements imposed by State and local jurisdictions." Id. at 36,492.

In the course of rulemaking proceedings mandated by the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 551-706 (1976 & Supp. V 1981), DOT conducted eight public hearings and received more than 1600 comments on its proposed regulation of the highway transportation of radioactive materials. In January 1980, DOT published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which contained DOT's preliminary assessment of appropriate routing requirements and driver training programs. See 45 Fed. Reg. 7140 (Jan. 31, 1980). Almost a year later, DOT published a Final Rule, known as HM-164, which closely resembled the proposed version. 46 Fed. Reg. 5298 (Jan. 19, 1981) (codified at 49 C.F.R. §§ 171-173, 177 (1982)).

This litigation challenges the sections of the Final Rule governing the routing of motor vehicles that carry "large-quantity shipments" of radioactive materials.*fn4 The Final Rule establishes a system of preferred routes comprising the highways of the Interstate Highway System supplemented by local highways selected and approved by state routing agencies.*fn5 Under the Final Rule, vehicles carrying large-quantity shipments of radioactive materials should as a general matter "operate[] over preferred routes selected to reduce time in transit, except that an Interstate System bypass or beltway around a city shall be used when available." 49 C.F.R. § 177.825(b) (1982). DOT designated the entire Interstate Highway System as a preferred route because of the System's low accident rates and its capacity to reduce transit times. See 46 Fed. Reg. at 5300-0l. However, because DOT believed that in many cases local roads might provide safer and more direct routes for highway carriers and that state authorities were better situated to determine where alternate routes would be preferable, state routing authorities were given authority to supplement the Interstate Highway System. See id. at 5301-02. The Rule also requires that large-quantity radioactive materials carriers prepare written route plans before shipment, that drivers for these shipments complete training programs, and that carriers moving irradiated reactor fuel follow security procedures established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). See 49 C.F.R. §§ 173.22, 177.825(c), (d), (e); see also 10 C.F.R. § 73 (NRC security regulations). Accompanying HM-164 was an appendix expressing DOT's opinion that the Rule would preempt local regulations, such as the New York City Health Code, that "prohibit[] transportation of large quantity radioactive materials by highway between any two points without providing an alternate route for the duration of the prohibition." 46 Fed. Reg. at 5317-18 (codified at 49 C.F.R. § 177 app. A (1982)).

In conjunction with the issuance of HM-164, DOT reckoned with section 102(2)(C) of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. § 4332(2)(c) (1976), which requires a detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in every proposal for a major federal action "significantly affecting" the quality of the human environment. DOT released with HM-164 a Final Regulatory Evaluation and Environmental Assessment,*fn6 which concluded that an EIS was not needed because HM-164 would not have a "significant" impact on the environment. DOT's Environmental Assessment noted that HM-164 would benefit the environment by reducing the existing level of background radiation. This benefit would result from a reduction in the transit time for shipments of radioactive materials. The Rule would also have a beneficial effect upon the risk that a shipment would be involved in a highway accident, since the interstate highway system enjoys a comparatively low accident rate.

However, the Environmental Assessment acknowledged that in one respect the Final Rule creates a risk. Permitting high-quantity shipments of spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive materials to be trucked through densely populated urban centers in jurisdictions that had previously banned such shipments creates an estimatable risk of serious consequences that would occur in the unlikely event of an accident with substantial leakage of radioactive gases. Conceding that this risk was credible, DOT concluded, on the basis of "overall risk" assessment, that this possibility did not cause HM-164 to have a "significant impact" on the environment. The concept of overall risk incorporates the significance of possible adverse consequences discounted by the improbability of their occurrence. DOT's risk assessment, which we discuss in detail in Part IV, infra, relied on a study estimating the probability of a catastrophic accident resulting from the highway transportation of radioactive materials through urban centers to be approximately once every 300 million years. See Nuclear Regulator Commission, Office of Standards Development, Final Environmental Statement on the Transportation of Radioactive Material by Air and Other Modes at v-vi (Dec. 1977) (hereinafter cited as 1977 NRC Report or NUREG-0170) (national estimate based on 1975 shipping rates); see also Sandia National Laboratories, Transportation of Radionuclides in Urban Environs: Draft Environmental Assessment 66 (July 1980) (hereinafter cited as Sandia Report) (study of probability of accident in New York City).

Throughout the rule-making process, the City of New York was a vocal critic of DOT's proposals and repeatedly urged DOT to broaden the scope of its inquiry and to consider barging as an alternate means of transporting large-quantity shipments of radioactive materials around urban centers that lack circumferential highways. When the Department failed to incorporate the City's barging suggestion into the Proposed Rule issued in early 1980, the City reiterated its support of barging and requested DOT to accompany the Final Rule with a non-preemption ruling for section 175.111(l) of the New York City Health Code. See HMTA § 112(b), 49 U.S.C. § 1811(b). The City's application for a non-preemption ruling was denied as premature. Once the Final Rule was published in January 1981, the City renewed its application for a non-preemption ruling. On January 15, 1982, fifteen days before the Final Rule went into effect, DOT sent the City a letter indicating that the City's non-preemption application would most likely not be approved for lack of substantial supporting documentation. The Final Rule went into effect on February 1, 1982.

However, orders entered in this litigation have prevented preemption of the City's regulation. On March 25, 1981, the City filed a complaint in the Southern District of New York to invalidate Rule HM-164 on numerous grounds. Shortly after the complaint was filed, the District Court granted motions by the State of New York and a group of utilities to join the proceeding as intervening plaintiff and intervening defendants, respectively. On January 29, 1982, three days before HM-164 was to take effect, the District Court issued a temporary order restraining the preemptive effect of HM-164 upon section 175-111(l) of the City's Health Code. On February 19, 1982, the District Court, in an exhaustive opinion, ruled that HM-164 violated HMTA and NEPA in its preemption of state and local bans on the transportation of large-quantity radioactive materials along highways in densely populated areas. The District Court permanently enjoined nationwide the enforcement of what it concluded was the invalid effect of HM-164, and offered the parties the opportunity to suggest corrections to the Court's opinion. Based on these suggestions, the District Court filed an amended opinion and judgment on May 6, 1982, which limited its earlier decision and invalidated HM-164 only insofar as it preempted New York City's Health Code. 539 F. Supp. 1237.


We consider first the District Court's interpretation of HMTA, the statute under which DOT issued Rule HM-164. The District Court construed HMTA to require that regulations promulgated under the statute set the safest feasible standards for transportation of hazardous materials. In the District Court's view, HMTA regulations must maximize public safety not only for the nation as a whole, but for every local jurisdiction in the country as well. Furthermore, in the District Court's view, DOT must require shippers to use the safest of alternative modes of transportation.*fn7 Applying this construction of HMTA, the Court faulted DOT for not demonstrating that HM-164 offers a safer means of transporting radioactive materials through New York City than barging these materials around the City. On this appeal, the Government and the intervening utility companies contend that HMTA does not require the Secretary to maximize safety, but rather authorizes her to set acceptable levels of safety for each mode of transportation. We agree with the appellants' interpretation of the statute.

HMTA empowers the Secretary of Transportation "to protect the Nation adequately against the risks of life and property which are inherent in the transportation of hazardous materials in commerce." HMTA § 102, 49 U.S.C. § 1801. The reference to "adequate" protection suggests that Congress expected the Secretary to exercise discretion in determining the appropriate level of safety. This understanding of HMTA is supported by section 105(a), which permits, but does not require, the Secretary to promulgate regulations governing "any safety aspect of the transportation of hazardous materials which the Secretary deems necessary or appropriate." 49 U.S.C. § 1804(a).

A further clue that Congress did not intend HMTA regulations to maximize public safety, particularly on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis, is the statute's regulatory structure. Under section 112(a), HMTA regulations preempt inconsistent state and local regulations. 49 U.S.C. § 1811(a). Congress included this provision "to preclude a multiplicity of State and local regulations and the potential for varying as well as conflicting regulations in the area of hazardous materials transportation." S. Rep. No. 1192, 93d Cong., 2d Sess. 37 (1974) (hereinafter cited as Senate Report); see Kappelmann v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 176 U.S. App. D.C. 163, 539 F.2d 165, 169-70 (D.C. Cir. 1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1061, 50 L. Ed. 2d 776, 97 S. Ct. 784 (1977); Consolidated Rail Corp. v. City of Dover, 450 F. Supp. 966, 973-74 (D. Del. 1978); see also National Tank Truck Carriers, Inc. v. City of New York, 677 F.2d 270, 275 (2d Cir. 1982). To ameliorate the sweep of section 112(a), Congress wrote into HMTA a procedure whereby local jurisdictions could apply for non-preemption rulings for their own regulations. See HMTA § 112(b), 49 U.S.C. § 1811 (b). A local jurisdiction qualifies for a non-preemption ruling if it can demonstrate to DOT that its local regulation "affords an equal or greater level of protection to the public" than that of DOT's regulations, and "does not unreasonably burden commerce." Id. This non-preemption procedure was added to HMTA so that in "certain exceptional circumstances" DOT could limit the preemptive force of federal regulations "to secure more stringent regulations" by local authorities. Senate Report, supra, at 38. It is difficult to understand why Congress would have added a non-preemption procedure to permit safer local regulations if the statute required the Secretary to adopt only those HMTA regulations that would maximize public safety on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis.

The District Court's construction of HMTA would place tremendous, if not insuperable, constraints on the Secretary's rule-making power in the absence of explicit statutory direction. Undoubtedly, Congress has (and occasionally uses) the authority to instruct a federal agency to regulate an area so as to maximize a public benefit or minimize a public harm. See, e.g., 33 U.S.C. § 1314(b)(2)(B) (1976) ("best measures and practices available to comply with" effluent limitations). But courts should not strain to infer from vague statutory language or legislative committee rhetoric a goal of maximizing a particular public policy. See FCC v. WNCN Listeners Guild, 450 U.S. 582, 593-95, 67 L. Ed. 2d 521, 101 S. Ct. 1266 (1981); INS v. Wang, 450 U.S. 139, 144, 101 S. Ct. 1027, 67 L. Ed. 2d 123 (1981) (per curiam). See Note, Intent, Clear Statements, and the Common Law: Statutory Interpretation in the Supreme Court, 95 Harv. L. Rev. 892, 910-12 (1982).

The District Court's interpretation of HMTA would also require the Department to compare modes of transportation to determine which mode is the safest, thereby pitting the various modes of transportation in direct competition because only one mode of transportation can be the safest mode for any given task. We do not believe that Congress imposed such a requirement.

Before HMTA was passed in 1974, a number of federal agencies, including the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Railway Administration, supervised the transportation of hazardous materials. The Secretary of Transportation maintained a small technical staff to advise these agencies, see Hazardous Materials Transportation Control Act of 1970, Pub. L. No. 91-458, §§ 301-303, 84 Stat. 971, 977 (repealed 1974), but DOT had no substantive control over the various modes of transportation. Consequently, there was no coordinated regulation of the various modes.

In 1974, Congress passed HMTA to "draw[] the Federal Government's now-fragmented regulatory and enforcement power over the movement of hazardous materials in commerce into one consolidated and coordinated effort under the direction of the Secretary of Transportation." Senate Report, supra, at 1. For the first time, a single federal authority had the responsibility for overseeing the transportation of hazardous materials by all modes. This centralization was designed to achieve a comprehensive approach to reducing risk, for example, by ensuring that consistent packaging rules were enforced for all modes. See id. at 2.

Because HMTA consolidated federal regulatory control, the District Court inferred that the Act required the Secretary to permit the use of only the safest mode for any function. Such a requirement would constitute a radical shift in regulatory policy with serious ramifications for the transportation industry. In the past, we have been extremely reluctant to hold Congress to have made such a basic change in regulatory procedure absent explicit statutory language or other clear manifestation of congressional intent. Toilet Goods Ass'n v. Finch, 419 F.2d 21, 27 (2d Cir. 1969). None of the provisions of HMTA remotely suggests that the Act was intended to mandate comparisons among modes of transportation. To the contrary, the House Committee made it clear that the Act would not change the Secretary's regulatory authority. See H. Rep. No. 1083, 93d Cong., 2d Sess. 20 (1974), reprinted in 1974 U.S. Code Cong. & Ad. News 7669, 7680. We conclude, therefore, that in passing HMTA Congress intended DOT to use its centralized authority to develop a rational and consistent system of regulations for all modes of transportation, but expected that the Department would continue to follow the prior practice of regulating each mode of transportation on an individual basis.*fn8

Having rejected the District Court's construction of HMTA, we now reach the question of what standards HMTA sets to govern the Secretary's rule-making authority. In our view, HMTA regulations are valid as long as they are rationally related to the policy -- the development of acceptable levels of public safety for each mode of transportation -- underlying HMTA and are promulgated in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 551-706 (1976 & Supp. V 1981). DOT fully complied with these standards. DOT followed appropriate notice and comment procedures, and the Final Rule was rationally related to the goal of developing acceptable levels of safety in the highway transportation of radioactive materials. Except for claims premised on an erroneous interpretation of HMTA, we do not understand the plaintiffs to dispute that HM-164 is a valid HMTA regulation.


We next consider the District Court's conclusions that DOT failed to comply with the requirements of NEPA. We discuss in this part the Court's conclusion that by giving insufficient attention to barging as an alternative to HM-164 nationwide and for New York City in particular, DOT failed to consider alternatives to proposed agency action as required by NEPA. In Part IV, infra, we consider the Court's ruling that DOT erred in assessing HM-164 not to have a "significant" environmental impact.

Section 102(2)(E) of NEPA obliges agencies to "study, develop, and describe appropriate alternatives to recommended courses of action in any proposal which involves unresolved conflicts concerning alternative uses of available resources." The Secretary suggest preliminarily that HM-164 does not even encounter this requirement because it does not propose a "use" of a "resource" within the meaning of section 102(2)(E). This Court, however, has not construed section 102(2)(E) narrowly to apply only to agency actions that propose an identifiable use of a limited resource like park land or fresh water.*fn9 Instead, we have ruled that federal agencies have a duty under NEPA to study alternatives to any actions that have an impact on the environment, even if the impact is not significant enough to require a full-scale EIS. Hanly v. Kleindienst, 471 F.2d 823, 834-36 (2d Cir. 1972), cert. denied, 412 U.S. 908, 36 L. Ed. 2d 974, 93 S. Ct. 2290 (1973); see Trinity Episcopal School Corp. v. Romney, 523 F.2d 88, 93 (2d Cir. 1975).

HM-164 is an agency action with some impact on the environment. The Rule establishes the manner in which highly toxic substances will be moved around the country. Even apart from the risk of a possible accident, the permitted transportation will cause some contribution to the amount of low-level radiation on the interstate highway system. Under the standards developed in Hanly v. Kleindienst, supra, and Trinity Episcopal School Corp. v. Romney, supra, we conclude that HM-164 has sufficient impact on the environment to require DOT to consider alternatives to the action.

This general conclusion, however, does not determine what sort of alternatives DOT had to consider in its Environmental Assessment and, in particular, whether the Department should have studied barging as an alternative to applying HM-164 to New York City.*fn10 As the Supreme Court has recognized, an agency's duty to consider alternatives under NEPA is "not self-defining." See Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. National Resources Defense Council, Inc., 435 U.S. 519, 551, 55 L. Ed. 2d 460, 98 S. Ct. 1197 (1978).

In the first instance, the agency itself is responsible for determining the range of alternatives to be considered, North Slope Borough v. Andrus, 206 U.S. App. D.C. 184, 642 F.2d 589, 601 (D.C. Cir. 1980), and is supposed to follow what the District of Columbia has called a "rule of reason," Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. Morton, 148 U.S. App. D.C. 5, 458 F.2d 827, 834 (D.C. Cir. 1972). An agency's selection of alternatives, however, is not insulated from review. See County of Suffolk v. Secretary of Interior, 562 F.2d 1368, 1375 (2d Cir. 1977), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 1064, 55 L. Ed. 2d 764, 98 S. Ct. 1238 (1978). While an agency is not obliged to consider every alternative to every aspect of a proposed action, see Environmental Defense Fund, Inc. v. Corps of Engineers, 492 F.2d 1123, 1134-36 (5th Cir. 1974); East 63rd Street Ass'n v. Coleman, 414 F. Supp. 1318, 1326 & n.18 (S.D.N.Y. 1976); Inman Park Restoration Inc. v. Urban Mass Transportation Administration, 414 F. Supp. 99, 115 (N.D.Ga. 1976), aff'd sub nom. Save Our Sycamore v. MARTA, 576 F.2d 573 (5th Cir. 1978), reviewing courts have insisted that the agency "consider such alternatives to the proposed action as may partially or completely meet the proposal's goal." Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. Callaway, 524 F.2d 79, 93 (2d Cir. 1975). Moreover, an agency will not be permitted to narrow the objective of its action artificially and thereby circumvent the requirement that relevant alternatives be considered. See id.; Committee to Stop Route 7 v. Volpe, 346 F. Supp. 731, 739-41 (D. Conn. 1972).

The scope of alternatives to be considered is a function of how narrowly or broadly one views the objective of an agency's proposed action. In this case, for example, if DOT's objective is to improve the safety of highway transportation of radioactive materials, relevant alternatives might include a choice of routes, a choice of equipment, and a choice of driver qualifications. If DOT is concerned more broadly with all transportation of these materials, it might consider alternative modes of transportation. If the objective is viewed still more broadly as reducing the hazards of radiation exposure, the Department might consider alternative sources of power that could reduce the generation of spent nuclear fuel. Frequently, a pertinent guide for identifying an appropriate definition of an agency's objective will be the legislative grant of power underlying the proposed action. See Picher, Alternatives Under NEPA: The Function of Objectives in an Environmental Impact Statement, 11 Harv. J.L. On Legis. 595 (1974); Comment, The National Environmental Protection Act of 1969: What "Alternatives" Must an Agency Discuss ?, 12 Colum. J.L. & Soc. Probs. 221, 241-50 (1976). Statutory objectives provide a sensible compromise between unduly narrow objectives an agency might choose to identify to limit consideration of alternatives and hopelessly broad societal objectives that would unduly expand the range of relevant alternatives. We implicitly endorsed the pertinence of statutory objectives in ruling that an agency need not consider "alternatives which could only be implemented after significant changes in government policy or legislation." Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. Callaway, supra, 524 F.2d at 93.*fn11

Having described the nature of an agency's duty to consider alternatives, we now consider whether DOT satisfied that duty in this case. The Environmental Assessment prepared for HM-164 was a thirty-six page document supplemented by nine technical appendices. The Assessment covered nine alternatives, including a no-action alternative. All of the alternatives concerned highway transportation of radioactive materials. The two principal alternatives involved routing shipments around heavily populated areas, except for pickup and delivery, and, as HM-164 proposed in modified form, routing the materials via interstate highways, except for pickups and deliveries. The Assessment also considered requiring advance notice of large-quantity shipments as well as preparation of after-the-fact routing plans for these shipments. Finally, the Assessment considered time-of-day or time-of-week routing restrictions and specialized driver training programs for large-quantity shipments.

The District Court's basic criticism of the Environmental Assessment was the absence of any serious consideration of the barging alternative. At various points in its opinion, the District Court seems to suggest that DOT should have considered barging as a nationwide alternative to trucking radioactive materials through densely populated areas. See, e.g., 539 F. Supp. at 1282. More often, however, Judge Sofaer makes clear that he was primarily concerned with DOT's failure to consider barging as an alternative for New York City. See id. at 1281, 1287. This fundamental complaint was also directed at the Assessment's treatment of the no-action alternative because, had DOT failed to promulgate HM-164, barging would have been the inevitable consequence in some jurisdictions, such as New York City. See id. at 1279.

Though we have required an agency to give some consideration to alternatives even though preparation of an EIS is not required, Hanly v. Kleindienst, supra, 471 F.2d at 834-36, it remains something of an anomaly to insist that an agency assess alternatives for an action that it has determined will not have a "significant" effect on the environment. See id. at 836-37 (Friendly, J., dissenting). But even accepting the teaching of Hanly, as we must, we are of the view that an agency's finding of no significant impact, if otherwise valid, permits the agency to consider a narrower range of alternatives than it might be obliged to assess before undertaking action that would significantly affect the environment. In this case, DOT's finding that HM-164 would not significantly affect the environment substantially diminishes the claim that the Department acted arbitrarily in declining to consider barging as a national alternative.

The claim is further undermined when we consider the statutory objective HM-164 was fulfilling. As we discussed in Part II, supra, HMTA authorizes the Secretary to promulgate regulations that establish acceptable national levels of public safety for each mode of transportation of hazardous materials. With HM-164, DOT consciously limited itself to studying and establishing national regulations for highway carriers, leaving for some future date the investigation of other modes of transportation. See 43 Fed. Reg. at 36,492. Since HMTA neither requires nor envisions that DOT will compare modes of transportation before issuing safety regulations, DOT was acting within its statutory mandate in limiting its inquiry to highway transportation. Even if barging offered a nationwide alternative to highway transportation, which seems unlikely,*fn12 barging was not an alternative to DOT's statutorily imposed objective of creating national safety regulations for highway transportation.

A third consideration that weighs heavily against requiring DOT to consider barging as a national alternative is the availability of the procedure for obtaining a nonpreemption ruling. Of course, it was open to DOT to consider including in HM-164 a provision requiring (or at least permitting local preference for) barging in those circumstances where this alternative could safely and conveniently avoid highway transportation through urban centers. But the opportunity for a non-preemption ruling will enable the Department to give adequate consideration to the barging alternative in those areas where local circumstances might warrant it.

There is even less justification for requiring DOT to consider in its Environmental Assessment barging only around New York City. As a site-specific solution, barging around New York City offered no reasonable alternative to a nationwide regulation for highway transportation. Moreover, to fault DOT for not considering a barging alternative to New York City would imply that the Department should have made similar comparisons of transportation modes for numerous other jurisdictions. Enlarging the duty to consider alternatives to this degree would make it virtually impossible for an agency to promulgate national regulations like HM-164. See East 63rd Street Ass'n v. Coleman, supra; Inman Park Restoration, Inc. v. Urban Mass Transportation Administration, supra.

The availability of a non-preemption ruling is, in any event, a complete answer to the claim that DOT was required in its Environmental Assessment to consider the barging alternative specifically for New York City. When an agency undertakes a national regulatory scheme like HM-164 and adopts procedures permitting localized environmental alternatives to be considered at a later date, we will not fault the agency for not considering these particular alternatives in its original Environmental Assessment. See County of Suffolk v. Secretary of Interior, supra, 562 F.2d at 1378.

In sum, we conclude that DOT did not violate NEPA by omitting from its Environmental Assessment consideration of barging as an alternative to HM-164 either for the nation as a whole or for New York City.


We turn now to the core issue: whether DOT violated NEPA by determining in its Environmental Assessment that HM-164 did not require preparation of an EIS because it was not an action that would "significantly" affect the environment. The District Court did not rule that an EIS was required. Instead, Judge Sofaer concluded that the Environmental Assessment was flawed in its consideration of whether HM-164 would "significantly" affect the environment. Though he strongly intimated that DOT would be obliged to conclude that an EIS was required, once it remedied the shortcomings that he perceived in the Assessment, his ruling faulted the sufficiency of the Assessment, not the absence of an EIS. In Judge Sofaer's view, the Assessment was deficient in its failure to reckon with numerous factors affecting the determination of how much risk HM-164 would create. Like Judge Sofaer, we approach the matter with an intuitive reaction that the transportation of radioactive materials through the cities of America poses risks that warrant careful consideration. However, after reviewing DOT's analysis of the risks and the studies the Department relied upon, in light of the standards circumscribing our role, see Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 462 U.S. 87, 103 S. Ct. 2246, 76 L. Ed. 2d 437, 51 U.S.L.W. 4678 (1983), we conclude that the Department did not violate NEPA in deciding that an EIS was not required.

DOT undertook the Assessment to consider environmental ramifications of a national rule. The Assessment confronted the question of what effect HM-164 or possible alternatives to HM-164 would have on the environmental quality of the nation as a whole. The "no-action" alternative against which HM-164 and its alternatives were compared was not a national environment free of radioactive materials, but a national environment with radioactive materials and without comprehensive federal regulations governing their transportation by highway. DOT's task in preparing the Environmental Assessment was complicated by the fact that the various options under consideration could not be tested against a single measure of environmental safety. In fact, for each alternative, the Department had to assess two distinct radiological risks: the effect of transporting radioactive materials on the level of background radiation and the risk that such transportation might result in accidents with the potential of causing serious damage.

Studies considered by DOT estimated the total annual dose of background radiation in the United States to be 40,000,000 rems. Of this total, transportation of radioactive materials, prior to HM-164, contributed 24,360 rems, less than one-tenth of one percent of the total dose. One measure of the relatively slight health hazard presented by such transportation is the estimate in NUREG-0170 that this background dose can be expected to cause an average of 3.07 latent cancer fatalities per year.*fn13 DOT's Environmental Assessment considered the estimated impact upon background radiation of two basic trucking alternatives: routing all large-quantity shipments of radioactive materials around heavily populated areas, except for pickups and deliveries, and routing such shipments on interstate highways, except for pickups and deliveries. The first option, avoiding population centers, was estimated by NUREG-0170, which DOT relied on, to reduce background radiation by 15.1 rems per year, which reduces latent cancer fatalities by an average of.002 per year. The "interstate" option, which HM-164 adopted in modified form, was estimated in the same study to reduce ...

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