Update on NSR Litigation: Cinergy Dodges a Bullet

In a crisply written opinion by Judge Posner, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals just reversed a district court judgment against Cinergy in the NSR case involving Cinergy’s power plant in Wabash, Indiana, and directed that judgment enter for Cinergy. It is not obvious that the case will have wide applicability, but it is certainly worth noting.

The first key issue in Cinergy was whether proposed new projects would be subject to NSR review if they were expected to result in an increase in annual emissions or only if they would result in an increase in the hourly emissions rate. In an earlier ruling, the 7th Circuit decided that annual emissions, rather than the hourly rate, was the appropriate test provided for in the statute and regulations.

However, when the case came to trial, a twist occurred. The jury only found violations with respect to four projects. All of those projects occurred between 1989 and 1992 – and during that time, Indiana’s SIP stated that the applicable test was whether a project would result in an hourly emissions rate increase. Even more complicated, EPA had approved the SIP, even though it also told Indiana that the SIP had to be changed. Indiana had apparently changed its rules prior to 1989, but failed to submit a SIP modification until 1994. The Court ruled that EPA must be held to the SIP that it approved and that was in effect at the time of the projects.

The Clean Air Act does not authorize the imposition of sanctions for conduct that complies with a State Implementation Plan that EPA has approved. The EPA approved Indiana’s plan with exceptions that did not include [the improper test.]

Calling EPA’s approval of the SIP a “blunder,” the Court said that EPA must live with it.

It’s not obvious that this decision will have much relevance outside cases in Indiana involving projects implemented during the time Indiana’s SIP contained the wrong test. However, it is a lesson that the details do matter – in particular, the details of the relevant SIP.

The second aspect of the case is also a lesson in the nitty-gritty of litigation – and may have broader applicability. With respect to NOx emissions [it is not clear why the NOx allegations were not controlled by the prior part of the decision], EPA relied on two experts to testify that the projects would result in increases in annual emissions. However, both experts relied on a formula used for baseload power plants. Unfortunately for EPA, the Wabash facility is a cycling plant, not a baseload plant. The model used by EPA’s experts assumes that an increase in capacity would result in a proportionate increase in output. However, that assumption is not valid for a cycling plant. The Court thus ruled that the experts’ opinions should not have been admitted; without them, EPA had no evidence of increased emissions and judgment had to enter for Cinergy.

This aspect of the case provides a cautionary lesson for the government (though I wouldn’t start dancing in the street if I were defending one of these cases). I think that there has been a sense that, if the government wins the legal battle on the issue of annual emissions v. hourly emissions rate and wins the routine maintenance argument, then the defendants are sunk. This case is a reminder that the facts still matter and that the government has to prove its case based on evidence regarding the specific projects being challenged.

What a notion.

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