Game, Set, Match

Posted on April 29, 2013 by Michael Hardy

On September 14, 2011, I posted a blog piece that was entitled “A Tug of War: How Can the State Satisfy Its Burden of Proof?” This posting discussed the diametrically opposed decisions of an Ohio trial court and an appeals court on the important issue of the kind of evidence necessary to prove a violation of an air emission limitation in an operating permit.  This closely watched case in Ohio eventually reached the Ohio Supreme Court, which finally announced its decision on December 6, 2012.

In State ex rel. Ohio Attorney General v. Shelly Holding Co. the Ohio Supreme Court sided with the appellate court and ruled that the civil penalty calculation started on the date of the violation, as demonstrated by the failure of a stack test, and continued until the permitted source demonstrated compliance with the emission limitations.  Over the objections of Shelly and several industry amicus filings, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that the state enforcement agency need not prove that the facility was operating out of compliance for each intervening day; such noncompliance can be presumed.

The issue arose, in part, because Shelly failed stack tests that were conducted under unrealistic, maximum-possible conditions when in fact day-to-day operations were likely to generate lower emissions.  The state argued that Shelly should have discontinued operations until a subsequent stack test successfully demonstrated adherence to the permit’s emission limitations.  Alternatively, the air pollution source could apply for and receive a new permit with different limits, or it could make intervening facility modifications that would enable it to pass the stack test.  Shelly felt that it was improper to presume that the facility would exceed its emission limits unless the state makes a prima facie showing that the violation is likely to be ongoing or continuing.

After concluding that the burden is on the violator to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that there were intervening days on which no violation occurred or that the violation was not continuing in nature, the Ohio Supreme Court found no constitutional problem with extending the penalty to those subsequent days after the failed stack test.  Thus, in Ohio, the beginning date for calculating a civil penalty for an air pollution control violation is the first date of demonstrated non-compliance (the failed stack test) and continues, even at lower operating rates, until the facility demonstrates a return to compliance.

While this decision arose in the context of an air permit, the State of Ohio is likely to cite it in other programs, such as NPDES permits.

What the Cluck?! Wastewater Discharge Permits for Air Pollutants?!

Posted on February 1, 2013 by Patricia Finn Braddock

Rose Acre Farms, Inc. et al. vs. NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, et al., decided January 4, 2013

On January 4, 2013, a North Carolina court held that an egg production facility could be required to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit solely on the basis that feathers and dust carrying ammonia nitrogen and fecal coliform, expelled from henhouses by ventilation fans, can be “pollutants” from a point source for which an NPDES permit is required if those pollutants reach waters of the State.  This is a case of first impression in which a court held that the impact of air emissions on water bodies could be regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

North Carolina egg producer Rose Acre Farms (RAF) appealed a decision by the NC Department of Water Quality (DWQ) that an NPDES Permit renewal required stringent new BMPs on the grounds that: 1) the DWQ had no authority to require an NPDES permit for a “no discharge” facility; and 2) even if DWQ had authority to require an NPDES permit, the DWQ had no authority to impose new BMPs because: a) the feathers, dust and litter expelled into the air from ventilation fans are not “pollutants” as defined in 33 U.S.C. §1362(6); and b) even if ammonia nitrogen, total inorganic nitrogen, total phosphorus and fecal coliform associated with the feathers, dust and litter are “pollutants” that enter waters of the State, that activity would be exempt under the agricultural storm water discharge exemption in 33 U.S.C. §1362(14).

The Court held that ammonia nitrogen and fecal coliform carried by feathers and dust expelled by ventilation fans in the henhouses are “biological materials”, a term included in the definition of a “pollutant” in the CWA.  In addition, the Court relied on EPA guidance letters to determine that feathers, dust and litter expelled from a henhouse by ventilation fans are discharges from a point source that could reach waters of the State.  Finally, the Court held that the agricultural storm water discharge exemption in 33 U.S.C. §1362(14) applies only to land application in accordance with site specific nutrient management practices and does not apply to pollutants from feathers, manure, litter or dust that are expelled from the RAF henhouses but are not entrained in irrigation water.

If courts in other jurisdictions follow suit, other sources of air emissions with the potential to reach a receiving water, such as power plants and industrial facilities, may be required to address the impacts of their emissions on those receiving waters in future NPDES permits, independent of required air permits.