EPA Wins An NSR Case: "Routine" Pretty Much Means Routine for the Unit

by Foley Hoag LLP - Environmental Law
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Last week, in United States v. Louisiana Generating, EPA won a ruling regarding what type of projects fall within the routine maintenance, repair or replacement exception from the rule that facility modifications are subject to PSD/NSR requirements. The decision is thorough in that it carefully reviews the so-called “WEPCO Factors” – the nature, extent, purpose, frequency, and cost of the work, and applied them to the work at issue in this case, i.e., reheater replacements at the Big Cajun II power plant. 

Notwithstanding the thoroughness of the court’s analysis, I don’t find it completely convincing. As the court acknowledged, while all of the WEPCO factors are relevant, the crux of the issue is whether, in order to qualify for the exception, maintenance work must be routine for the units at issue, or only routine in the industry. In other words, should the question be whether all similar generating units at some point in their life undergo reheater replacement, or whether each individual unit in question must undergo reheater replacement multiple times in order for such work to be considered routine. 

Personally, I think that the latter is probably the better interpretation. Of course, since the regulations are not crystal-clear, EPA has significant discretion in interpreting its own regulations, and EPA takes the position that maintenance work must be routine with respect to individual units to qualify for the exception. End of story, no? No. The problem is that EPA does not have discretion to change its interpretation whenever it feels like doing so. In 1992, EPA stated, in a preamble to NSR regulation revisions, that

"EPA is today clarifying that the determination of whether the repair or replacement of a particular item of equipment is “routine” under the NSR regulations, while made on a case-by-case basis, must be based on the evaluation of whether that type of equipment has been repaired or replaced by sources within the relevant industrial category."

The court in Louisiana Generating acknowledged that this language favored Louisiana Generating’s position that one must look to whether a maintenance activity is routine in the industry, rather than routine with respect to the individual units in question. However, the court then did not discuss this issue in evaluating the WEPCO factors, and separately found that no reasonable jury could conclude that the project was routine.

I don’t think that this issue is going to be finally resolved at least until a number of appellate courts have had an opportunity to review it and I could imagine it ultimately making its way to the Supreme Court. 

As I have previously noted, while I tend to side with the defendants in these cases, I think that the larger point is that these types of arguments are borderline silly. More than anything else, they illustrate that the entire NSR/PSD program is fundamentally flawed. Instead of such outdated technology-based regulation, power plant emissions should be regulated pursuant to trading programs that allow needed emissions reductions to be attained in the most cost-effective way possible. I still dream of a grand bargain which would lower emissions limits, utilize trading to attain them, and completely eliminate the NSR/PSD program. Where is the radical center in Congress when one needs it?

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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