So, You Liked NSR Enforcement? How about State Public Nuisance Claims?

In a decision that could have significant impact on states’ efforts to limit cross-border pollution, Judge Lacy Thornburg of the District Court for the Western District of North Carolina issued an affirmative injunction against the TVA this week, requiring it to install pollution control equipment at its facilities located nearest to North Carolina and imposing specific emissions limits from those facilities. The basis for the injunction was a finding, after trial, that the facilities created a public nuisance as a result of the air pollution transported from those facilities to North Carolina.

The decision is notable for a number of the findings and holdings.

  • Generally speaking, compliance with regulations does not preclude a finding that air emissions constitute a nuisance. (The Court applied the nuisance law of the states in which the plants were located.)
  • Ozone and PM2.5 can create adverse health impacts at concentrations below the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). This suggests that facilities contributing to concentrations of air pollutants can be subject to an injunction requiring the facility to decrease emissions, even if the area is in attainment of the NAAQS.
  • The Court looked to survey data indicating that Blue Ridge Parkway visitors would pay $328 in annual taxes in order to improve visibility. As many readers will know, this kind of survey research is extremely controversial and may lead to some extraordinary damages findings.
  • The Court declined to impose an injunction against TVA facilities that were not proximate to North Carolina, essentially on the ground their impacts on North Carolina were de minimis. The court found that those plants against which an injunction was entered contributed to somewhere between 5% and 10% of ambient contaminant concentrations. The other plants contributed less 0.1% of ambient concentrations.
  • The Court imposed a stringent schedule by when pollution control equipment must be installed. The Court gave the TVA 27 months to install scrubbers and 21 months to install SCRs. This time frame was substantially shorter than that proposed by the TVA.

The one piece of good news for generating plants was the court’s causation analysis with regard to more distant plants. That analysis, if followed, suggests it would be extremely hard for a public nuisance plaintiff to prevail in a global warming case, since the causative contribution of any facility or even group of facilities to the global warming problem is almost certain to be even more attenuated than for those TVA plants distant from North Carolina.

The decision undoubtedly gives downwind states a substantial hammer against upwind sources of contamination (and could be applied to water pollution cases as well as air pollution). Indeed, in the current set of Congressional negotiations, industrial interests could conceivably be tempted to accept more stringent emissions limits in return for preemption of state nuisance laws. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in Congress.

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