Earlier this week, the United States brought another NSR/PSD enforcement action, this time concerning the Homer City Plant, in Pennsylvania. The suit itself isn’t big news, though it’s helpful to have periodical reminders that the NSR enforcement initiative remains active at EPA and DOJ; it is a significant part of the government’s arsenal against traditional pollutants.
It’s also important to remember that, in the absence of comprehensive climate legislation, the NSR enforcement initiative has become part of the government’s climate strategy. The plant spokesman stated that the plant is “positioned quite well to succeed in whatever environment we might be looking at in the future.” However, Randy Francisco, Pennsylvania representative for the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign (and doesn’t the name say it all), had a different view:
I don’t think it’s worth it to put the money into it to clean it up. This is one of the dirtiest plants in the country, and it really just needs to be put to bed.
Why do I describe this as a fine mess and how did we get here? To mix my comedic metaphors, we have met the enemy and he is us. It’s a mess, because the PSD/NSR program is a clunky, awkward, and vague program and, whatever the merits of the specific legal questions in the various suits, EPA can’t really deny that its interpretation of the program has not been a model of consistency. It’s a mess because it’s difficult to achieve programmatic results through enforcement. It’s a mess because using PSD enforcement to make coal more expensive so that coal plants will shut down and stop emitting GHGs is hardly an efficient way to regulate GHGs.
Why are we the enemy? Simple. Because the environment would be cleaner and the economy stronger with comprehensive climate legislation combined with significant changes to the NSR/PSD program and we haven’t figured out a way to get there.
The result? No one’s happy (except, perhaps, some busy environmental lawyers and some politicians who can find opportunities for grandstanding). EPA and environmentalists aren’t happy, because we don’t have comprehensive climate legislation. Large emitters aren’t happy, because they are left with the collateral damage of PSD/NSR, a program that should be allowed to die a quiet death.
For those of us who live in the trenches of these battles, at least one detail in the complaint is worth noting. The United States brought suit, not only against the current owner and operator of the Homer City plant, but also against New York State Electric and Gas Corporation and Pennsylvania Electric Co., both of which owned the plant prior to 1998. Why the emphasis? Because it’s more than six years ago and therefore outside the statute of limitations for the government’s penalty claims. Indeed, the government seeks penalties only from the current owner/operators. Nonetheless, it seeks injunctive relief against NYSEG and PENELEC, even though they’ve had no connection to the plant in more than 12 years. The complaint states that:
They can be ordered to fund and implement contracts with third-party vendors who design, fabricate, and install the air pollution control equipment at issue. They can also take various actions to mitigate their past illegal pollution such as purchasing air pollution credits known as “allowances.”
A fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.