Not So Fast with Renewed NSR Enforcement: Power Plants Win a Routine Maintenance Case

Last week, Judge Thomas Varlan handed the power plant sector a major win in the NSR enforcement arena, ruling that economizer and superheater replacement projects in 1988 at the TVA Bull Run plant were routine maintenance not subject to NSR/PSD regulations. Judge Varlan ruled for the TVA notwithstanding that:

The projects cost millions of dollars (but less than $10M each)

They extended the life of the plant by 20 years

The costs were identified as capital, not maintenance, expenses

The projects were more extensive than other economizer/superheater projects that had previously been implemented at the Bull Run facility

Why did the Court rule for the TVA?

Although expensive, the projects’ costs were consistent with a wide range of maintenance projects conducted at Bull Run during the time frame

These projects were routine in the industry, even if not commonly performed more than once at individual facilities

Life extension, while a result of the projects, was not their primary purpose

If this decision is upheld on appeal, it will significantly weaken EPA and citizen NSR/PSD enforcement efforts in the power plant sector – at least in the Sixth Circuit, where there are a lot of coal-fired power plants.

Whether the decision is right or wrong – and neither reversal nor affirmance by the Sixth Circuit would surprise me – I’d like to take this opportunity to get on my soapbox about the NSR program as a whole. Why are we fighting about whether projects implemented 22 years ago were routine maintenance? Wouldn’t it make more sense to rely on trading programs that are proven to work cost-effectively to reduce emissions than to try to figure out whether replacement of a superheater provides sufficient leverage to require a power plant to install a scrubber or SCR?

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