The decision yesterday in United States v. Minnkota Power Cooperative serves as a useful reminder regarding how important the burden of proof is in review of agency decisions. The case started in 2006, as part of DOJ’s NSR enforcement initiative, when the United States and North Dakota brought suit against Minnkota’s Milton R. Young Station. The parties settled and a consent decree was entered. Apparently, the parties knew at the time of the settlement that there would be a dispute regarding what would constitute BACT for NOx control and they thus agreed to defer the issue; the consent decree simply provided that the North Dakota Department of Health would determine BACT.
It took the DOH four years to do so, but, in November 2010, the DOH concluded that selective non-catalytic reduction, or SNCR, constitutes BACT for the MRY facility, which has unusual technology involving cyclone-fired boilers combusting North Dakota lignite, rather than bituminous or sub-bituminous coal. EPA wanted SCR identified as BACT and pursued dispute resolution under the consent decree to get it.
Unfortunately for EPA, the decree provided that the determination by North Dakota would be binding unless EPA “demonstrates that it is not supported by the state administrative record and not reasonable in light of applicable statutory and regulatory provisions.” As the court noted, the consent decree language was not unique; it “mirrors the standard of review” for challenges to state BACT determinations even outside the consent decree context.
The crux of the case was whether cyclone fired boilers combusting North Dakota lignite were sufficiently like other coal-fired boilers that determinations for such boilers that SCRs constitute BACT should essentially be binding here. The North Dakota DOH compiled an extensive record demonstrating that such other coal-fired facilities are not sufficiently like the MRY facility, and the court deferred to DOH’s judgment, based on the record.
Perhaps the most telling evidence was that DOJ engaged an expert consultant, which issued an request for proposals to install SCR at the MRY facility. DOJ in fact obtained two proposals with performance guarantees. The availability of such guarantees is extremely probative of whether a technology constitutes BACT. However, DOJ’s consultant failed to provide in its RFP sufficient detail regarding the specific characteristics of the MRY facility – and when the companies responding to the RFP learned the details, they withdrew the guarantees, almost certainly leaving EPA and DOJ in a worse position than if they had never gone through the RFP process. One might also infer that the court thought that DOJ was trying to pull a fast one, which certainly did not help.
Yesterday’s Cape Wind decision, together with this case, even though involving totally different statutory and regulatory regimes, provide a useful joint reminder of the importance of building the record in administrative cases.
As to this case, would the outcome have been different if EPA had made the BACT decision? Would a decision to impose SCR as BACT have been upheld if the burden were on the person challenging that decision? We’ll never know, but I could see it happening. Burdens do matter.