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April 4, 2024 Big Tech Legal News

Toxic Exposures

‘Huge Win’: Court Rules Big Telecom Must Comply With State Environmental Laws

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge last week ruled that federal law does not preempt California’s state environmental law, which requires environmental impact reviews before telecom companies can apply for permits to build new wireless infrastructure on scenic highways and historic sites.

gavel and word "win" with cell tower

Los Angeles County officials must comply with state environmental law when issuing permits for new wireless infrastructures, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled.

The ruling is a win for Children’s Health Defense (CHD) and a coalition of community and environmental groups in a historic case challenging the fast-tracked proliferation of wireless infrastructure in Los Angeles County.

W. Scott McCollough, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a press release, “The court’s ruling is a huge win in the battle against unfettered proliferation of wireless because of the known risks to the environment and people’s health.”

McCollough — lead litigator for CHD’s Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR) & Wireless cases, added: “There is much more to be done, and we work on it every day, but this is a significant step in the right direction.”

The lawsuit alleged Los Angeles County violated California’s state environmental law — the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) — when it passed two ordinances allowing telecommunications companies to install wireless infrastructure without environmental review.

CEQA requires public agencies to “look before they leap” by considering the environmental consequences of their proposed actions.

The county claimed wireless projects were exempt from CEQA review, but Judge James C. Chalfant disagreed.

In his 65-page opinion, Judge Chalfant said that state environmental law generally applies to wireless projects and is only preempted by federal law — in this case, the Telecommunication Act of 1996 — when it comes to minor modifications and “collocations,” meaning additions to existing towers, upgrades or repairs.

The judge also noted that an environmental impact analysis is necessary for proposed wireless projects, like 5G small cells or cell towers, along scenic highways or historical sites.

Miriam Eckenfels-Garcia, director of CHD’s EMR & Wireless program, called the judge’s ruling “hugely important” because it established the legal principle that state environmental law isn’t preempted by federal law, so it must be taken into consideration when it comes to the placement of cell towers.

“Our EMR and wireless litigation strategy is testing the limits of federal preemption in this space,” Eckenfels-Garcia told The Defender, “as we are trying to establish and secure what states and local authorities can do to protect the public and the environment from harmful RF [radiofrequency] radiation.”

The local level is where people have influence, she said, so we need to preserve as many state and local rights as possible.

“Knowing that state environmental laws can be used to slow down the uncontrolled wireless rollout and stop some of these towers is a big win for us and something that will empower communities across the country to fight back.”

The judge gave both parties until May 7 to respond to his ruling.

McCollough told The Defender the legal team is “considering seeking further review of certain issues.”

In addition to CHD, plaintiffs in the suit include Fiber First LA, Mothers of East LA, Boyle Heights Community Partners, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, Union Binacional de Organizaciones de Trabajadores Mexicanos Ex Braceros 1942-1964, California Fires & Firefighters, Malibu For Safe Tech, EMF Safety Network, California for Safe Technology and 5G Free California.

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