EPA Loses a PSD Enforcement Case — Big Time

EPA may have had problems in court in recent years defending its regulations, but it has generally fared much better in its enforcement cases. Earlier this week, however, EPA suffered what will be, if it is affirmed, a devastating defeat in its PSD/NSR enforcement initiative. In United States v. EME Homer City Generation, Judge Terrence McVerry concluded that the government could get no relief against either the former owners of the facility or the current owners or operator. No penalties. No injunctive relief. No relief under state law. Nothing. Nada.

The facts here were typical of NSR enforcement cases. The facility, in Homer City, Pennsylvania, had implemented a number of projects from 1991 through 1996 which, EPA alleged, required PSD permits. No permits were sought. The owners at the time of the changes sold the plant in 1999. It was sold again in 2001 and is currently operated by one entity and owned by a group of LLCs. 

The court’s analysis was thorough, yet straightforward. According to the court, PSD requirements are one-time, pre-construction requirements. With respect to civil penalties, the United States acknowledged that the five-year statute of limitations precluded claims against the former owners. The court gave the claim against the current owners and operator short shrift. The court concluded that

The alleged PSD violations constitute singular, separate failures by the Former Owners to obtain pre-construction permits, rather than ongoing failures to comply with whatever hyupothetical conditions might have been imposed during the PSD permittingprocess. Thus, the United States was required to file suit to recover civil penalties for an alleged PSD program violation within five years of the construction project.

The big news from the decision is the court’s refusal to grant injunctive relief. While Judge McVerry described the statute as complex and ambiguous, he did not find the decision before him difficult. With respect to the current owners/operator, injunctive relief could not be imposed on them, because no remedy can be imposed without a liability finding. Because the failure to obtain PSD permits was solely attributable to the former owners, the current owners/operator are not liable for the violation. No liability; no injunction. 

The court found the question somewhat more difficult with respect to former owners. They would be liable for the original violation, if proved, and the five-year statute of limitations does not apply to injunctive relief. The court punted on whether it had authority to issue an injunction against former owners, resting its decision instead on the court’s broad discretion to grant or deny equitable relief. Describing injunctive relief as “a rare and extraordinary remedy,” the court concluded that it would be inappropriate to grant relief against former owners where, since they no longer own the facility, injunctive relief against the former owners is not necessary to prevent future violations by the former owners. 

Finally, the court concluded that the current owners/operator did not violate their Title V permit, because the permit does not include any requirement to meet BACT. The court flat-out rejected the idea that the Title V permit could somehow be found to “incorporate” BACT requirements that should have been included in the Title V permit because they should have been included in PSD permits, because the former owners should have applied for them. 

In short, the government was too late to bring claims against the former owners, and could not establish liability against the current owners. Thus, it could get no relief against anyone.

It is difficult to square this opinion with the general rule interpreting police power statutes broadly to effectuate their purposes, because this decision means that there will be some circumstances in which there is a violation with no remedy, even where the impacts of that violation are still being felt, or seen, or inhaled, today. However, the decision is careful and thoughtful and I wouldn’t automatically assume that it will be reversed on appeal. Not a good day for EPA.

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