Chalk One Up For Reason and Common Sense: The 4th Circuit Reverses the TVA Public Nuisance Decision

My apologies if this post is a mash note to Judge Wilkinson. Sometimes a decision is written with such clarity and simplicity that you have to sit up and take notice. Such is the case with yesterday’s decision in North Carolina v. TVA, reversing the District Court decision imposing an injunction against four TVA plants that would have required installation of additional controls for NOx and SO2 , notwithstanding the absence of any allegation that the plants were violating their permits under the Clean Air Act. My apologies also to my friends in the environmental community and the Massachusetts AG’s office, who supported the District Court decision, but I have a hard time seeing this decision as anything other than the death knell for this kind of public nuisance litigation.

My only complaint with the opinion is that second paragraph of the decision is such a cogent summary that it’s not obvious to me that the decision needed to go on for another 30 pages. That paragraph states:

This ruling was flawed for several reasons. If allowed to stand, the injunction would encourage courts to use vague public nuisance standards to scuttle the nation’s carefully created system for accommodating the need for energy production and the need for clean air. The result would be a balkanization of clean air regulations and a confused patchwork of standards, to the detriment of industry and the environment alike. Moreover, the injunction improperly applied home state law extraterritorially, in direct contradiction to the Supreme Court’s decision in International Paper Co. v. Ouellette, 479 U.S. 481 (1987). Finally, even if it could be assumed that the North Carolina district court did apply Alabama and Tennessee law, it is difficult to understand how an activity expressly permitted and extensively regulated by both federal and state government could somehow constitute a public nuisance. For these reasons, the judgment must be reversed.

While I will thus leave the bulk of the opinion to readers particularly interested in the subject, one other paragraph stands out for me. After discussing the contours of public nuisance litigation, Judge Wilkinson noted that:

while public nuisance law doubtless encompasses environmental concerns, it does so at such a level of generality as to provide almost no standard of application. If we are to regulate smokestack emissions by the same principles we use to regulate prostitution, obstacles in highways, and bullfights, see Keeton, supra, at 643-45, we will be hard pressed to derive any manageable criteria. As Justice Blackmun commented, “one searches in vain . . . for anything resembling a principle in the common law of nuisance.”

There’s no question in my mind that this decision is the end of public nuisance litigation as a viable cause of action for traditional pollutants, where those pollutants are comprehensively regulated under a federal statute. Moreover, it certainly provides a roadmap for dismissal of public nuisance claims concerning GHG emissions. As I noted last year in discussion Connecticut v. AEP, even though the 2nd Circuit allowed GHG nuisance claims to proceed, part of its argument was that there is no comprehensive federal regulatory scheme with respect to GHG. Its argument clearly suggested that, once such regulations are in place, public nuisance defendants might have better luck. The promulgation of the Tailoring Rule now means that public nuisance defendants can point to North Carolina v. EPA and say that the federal rules have displaced the common law of nuisance. I think that they will probably win that argument. They certainly should.

Thank you Judge Wilkinson.

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