Another Blow to EPA’s NSR/PSD Enforcement Initiative

Posted on August 27, 2013 by Mary Ellen Ternes

Followers of this Blog will not be at all surprised with the Third Circuit’s August 22, 2013 ruling denying EPA’s requested CAA New Source Review enforcement relief against former and current owners of the grandfathered and allegedly subsequently modified power plant that has been called “one of the largest air pollution sources in the nation.”   Former and current owners of such aging power plants caught in EPA’s NSR national enforcement initiative are reassured with the Third Circuit’s finding that text of the Clean Air Act does not authorize injunctive relief for wholly past PSD violations, even if that violation causes ongoing harm.

Having lost its battle for the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR, or the Transport Rule) in August 2012, EPA was dealt another blow with United States v. EME Homer City Generation, in which the Third Circuit upheld the District Court’s 2011 dismissal of the government’s claims.

In 2011, the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania agreed with the current and former owners of the power plant that EPA had no authority to hold either party liable for alleged PSD violations arising from purported modifications to their grandfathered power plant.  In reaching defendants’ bases for dismissal, the District Court reviewed the permit actions approved by air permitting authorities in 1991, 1994, 1995 and 1996, which EPA alleged with Notices of Violation in 2008 (against the current owner) and 2010  (against current and former owners), to have triggered PSD, and which caused the current Title V permit to be incomplete.   The Court’s holding that the PSD violations constituted singular, separate failures by the former owner rather than ongoing failures meant that EPA was outside the five year statute of limitations, allowing no civil penalties against the former and current owners.  Moreover, the District Court held EPA was left with no injunctive relief against the current owner because they were in no position to apply for a PSD permit prior to their acquisition of the plant in 1998, and thus could not have violated PSD.

The District Court separately addressed EPA’s claims of injunctive relief against the former owner, recognizing the ongoing higher SO2 emissions that occurred without the benefit of an historic PSD permit.  The District Court was unwilling to reach a broad conclusion regarding its authority to award injunctive relief under the PSD program, but given that the former owners no longer owned or operated the plant, and therefore no longer violate PSD, held that there was no plausible basis for granting the rare and extraordinary remedy of injunctive relief, despite the higher emissions occurring the absence of BACT, which the court characterized as a present consequence of a one-time violation.

Upon review, the Third Circuit rejected EPA’s arguments that the current owners violated PSD by operating the plant without BACT with a simple, “no,” pursuant to the plain text of 42 USC 7475(a) which references merely “construction” and “modification,” not “operation, ” relying on U.S. v. Midwest Generation and Sierra Club v. Otter Tail Power Co.,  adopting the positions of the Seventh and Eighth Circuits that “even though the preconstruction permitting process may establish obligations which continue to govern a facility’s operation after construction, that does not necessarily mean that such parameters are enforceable independent of the permitting process,” and thoroughly refuting EPA’s arguments that PSD could somehow result in ongoing operational requirements outside the PSD permitting process.  

Likewise, the Third Circuit rejected EPA’s proposed injunctive relief, which would have required the former owners to install BACT or purchase emission credits and retire them, affirming the District Court’s decision on narrower grounds.  Specifically, the Third Circuit held that the text of the Clean Air Act does not authorize an injunction against former owners and operators for a wholly past PSD violation, even if that violation causes ongoing harm. 

Hopefully, this Third Circuit decision, along with the Seventh and Eighth Circuit decisions relied upon therein, will signal a substantive end to EPA’s NSR/PSD Enforcement Initiative for similarly situated historic grandfathered power plants and their former and current owners.  But, we may have to wait out EPA’s hard headed circuit by circuit enforcement approach.  See e.g., EPA’s December 21, 2013 enforcement memorandum, “Applicability of the Summit Decision to EPA Title V and NSR Source Determinations,” following the Sixth Circuit’s Summit Petroleum Corp. v. EPA et al.