Energy Department Appeals Defeat in Computer Lab Lawsuit

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday October 22, 2009 - 09:23:00 AM

The battle over the supercomputing lab planned for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) shifted to a new venue Friday: the U.S. Court of Appeals. 

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) filed an appeal from the ruling of U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, who upheld the claims of Berkeley activists charging that the UC Board of Regents had erroneously approved the $133 million building project without conducting a federal environmental review. 

Alameda environmental attorney Michael Lozeau filed the original challenge on behalf of Save Strawberry Canyon, a coalition whose members include Berkeley resident Sylvia McLaughlin, co-founder of Save the Bay, Lesley Emmington, Janice Thomas and Hank Gehman. 

The lab conducted a review of the project under provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) but did not conduct a similar review conforming to the requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). 

The original suit named the DOE, LBNL officials and the UC Board of Regents as defendants. Only the DOE is appealing Judge Alsup’s ruling, since the time for final appeals also ended with the close of business Friday. 

While lab officials told the public and Berkeley planning commissioners during the CEQA-mandated hearings that the lab would host the National Energy Research Computing Center, a federal supercomputing facility, their attorneys argued during the court case that the building “was, and is, not the Department of Energy’s action.” 

Lab attorneys said there was no guarantee the DOE would use the facility for its computing center, therefore no federal environmental review was required.  

Alsup ruled that he had found “serious questions going to the merits of [Save Strawberry Canyon’s] claim that the project is a major federal action.” 

The appeal was filed by two U.S. Department of Justice attorneys, Barclay T. Samford and Peter C. Whitfield, on behalf of the DOE. 

Their notice of appeal did not cite specific reasons for challenging Judge Alsup’s summary judgment, which handed an unqualified victory to the environmentalists. 

The proposed lab would be built near the lab’s Blackberry Gate, located at the lab complex. 

The university’s plans to build a second lab overlooking Strawberry Canyon have also been shelved, with a new lab to create fuels from crops moving to downtown Berkeley at the site of the old California Department of Health Services building west of campus between Berkeley Way and Hearst Avenue. 

A second, smaller lab focusing on photovoltaic and electrochemical power generation will be located on the LBNL campus at a site yet to be determined, lab officials said.