How Broad is the Scope of Relief for NSR Violations? Very, Very Broad

On the better late than never front, I finally got around to reviewing the still relatively recent decision in United States v. Cinergy Corp. regarding the scope of injunctive relief available with respect to violations of the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review, or NSR, provisions. Although the decision was issued in mid-October, its significance is great enough to mention here.

As most readers here will know, the Cinergy case is one of the remaining NSR enforcement cases originally brought by the Clinton administration. The defendants had previously been found liable for NSR violations at the Wabash River power plant. The recent decision involved the defendants’ efforts to preclude the government from seeking retroactive injunctive relief, i.e., not penalties, and not prospective relief to prevent future violations, but injunctive relief intended to remedy, mitigate, or offset the prior violations.

The relevant statutory language, from § 113 of the CAA, provides that a court may “restrain” violations, impose penalties, and, critically, “award any other appropriate relief.” The court in Cinergy held that this broad language authorizes injunctive relief focused on past harm, rather than just restraint of future violations.

It is one thing to order restoration of an illegally filled wetland. In that context, such a remedy is understandable and its scope necessarily somewhat limited. In the case of air pollution, however, once the emissions have occurred, it is obviously impossible to identify the location of that pollution or the scope of the remedy appropriate for such past harm. In other words, demonstrating an appropriate nexus between the harm and the remedy will often be difficult, if not impossible. 

One obvious possible form of relief would be to calculate the excess emissions resulting from the non-compliance and require the defendant to overcontrol in the future until it has offset those excess emissions. Whether the court will order such an offset or any other form of remedial injunction is not yet known, because the court concluded that it needed to have an evidentiary hearing regarding what relief it should in fact order. However, the mere possibility that such relief may be available certainly provides the government with a significant hammer to use during settlement negotiations in pending or future NSR enforcement cases. 

One issue of concern is whether such relief might be ordered against a current owner of a facility even if the original NSR violation was caused by a prior owner. In that case, the prior owner is not capable of offsetting the historical excess emissions, but the current owner would have a strong equitable argument that a remedial injunction should not be imposed against it.

As always, some of these questions are obviously going to have to wait for future judicial decisions.

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