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.



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