Air Emissions Violations Presumed Continuing in Nature for Purposes of Civil Penalties

On December 6, 2012, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a rare opinion pertaining to the proper calculation of civil penalties in the context of an environmental enforcement action.  The decision has serious ramifications for any company that is required to perform stack tests to demonstrate compliance with air emission standards.  It also may impact any company that has been issued a notice of violation for an air emission violation.

In State ex rel. Ohio Atty. Gen. v. Shelly Holding Co., Slip Opinion No. 2012 – Ohio – 5700 (Dec. 6, 2012), the Court found that once a violation of an air emission permit or regulatory limit has been demonstrated, the violation is presumed to be continuing in nature until the company provides convincing rebuttal evidence that the violation has ceased.  This finding means that any company that exceeds an air emission limit must act quickly to change operations or reduce emissions to demonstrate compliance.  Otherwise, the company could face a very large civil penalty because each day of non-compliance could warrant a penalty up to $25,000 per day.

Rebuttal of the Presumption Air Emissions Violation is On-Going

The Shelly company had failed a stack test of its asphalt plant.  A key aspect of the failed stack test was that it had to been run under "worst case" conditions- Meaning the emissions were measured when the facility was operating at maximum capacity.  The Court held that the failed stack test established that there was an emission limit violation.  

The State asserted civil penalties were owed for each day following the failed stack test until the Company demonstrated it had returned to compliance.  Shelly argued that it was inappropriate to presume such a violation was continual in nature when its normal operations were not at maximum capacity. 

While the trial court had agreed with the Company, the Supreme Court disagreed with Shelly and concluded the burden was on the Company to demonstrate it returned to compliance through one of the following:

  1. A subsequent stack test at maximum capacity that showed emissions within permit limits;
  2. A revised permit or variance;
  3. Operating conditions during the stack test no longer existed;
  4. Mechanical failures were repaired; or
  5. Raw materials and fuels were changed.

However, relative to numbers 3 through 5, the Court suggested a company would need to supply convincing evidence that emissions were actually within limits.  For example, the Court rejected Shelly's argument that normal operating conditions where below maximum capacity and, therefore, the State lacked evidence it violated emission limits on days other than the initial stack test.