On March 31st, a Federal District Court in Tennessee (6th Circuit) issued the latest decision in relation to litigation stemming from New Source Review (NSR) enforcement actions against electric coal fired utilities.  The TVA Bull Run decision is another example of the inconsistent application of the test for determining when projects trigger NSR.

The NSR regulatory program continues to serve as the best example of poorly drafted or applied environmental regulations that has major implications for business and industry.  Clear standards and well drafted rulemaking should always be the highest priority for EPA.  Otherwise, businesses are treated in an inconsistent manner and EPA simply looks bad.

Similar to other NSR enforcement actions against coal-fired utilities, the TVA case turned on whether the Routine Maintenance, Repair and Replacement (RMRR) exception covered the projects at issue.  Simply put, if the projects are viewed as routine, the RMRR exception applies and NSR will not be triggered.

The two main projects at issue were:

  1. Replacement of an economizer to reduce forced outages related to tube leaks
  2. Replacement and repair related to tubing associated with the superheater which super heats steam at the plant

What makes this case interesting is that its not the first time these types of projects have been evaluated by the federal courts in determining whether RMRR applies.  In evaluating these projects under the NSR test, Courts have reached opposite conclusions.  A finding NSR is triggered can subject a utility to billions in pollution equipment upgrades and penalties, so you would think consistency would be very important.

Determining whether RMRR exception applies, involves analysis of the following factors:

  • Nature and extent of project
  • Purpose
  • Frequency of these types of repairs (is it routine)
  • Cost of the project

Whether the RMRR exception covers a project has turned on whether the Court hearing the case applies the factors above relative to the specific emission unit or the industry as a whole.  For example, application of the factor known as frequency of repair– should the factor be viewed as how frequently the repair occurred on the specific unit or the frequency it occurred on similar units throughout industry?

The significant differences in opinion over the basic application of the test for RMRR has led to completely inconsistent holdings.  While TVA found RMRR covered the projects, two other federal courts (Ohio Edison and Sierra Club v. Morgan) have found similar projects, including economizer replacement projects, did not fall within RMRR.

The inconsistent rulings have created a significant competitive advantage to those businesses that find themselves lucky enough to operate in a jurisdiction where Courts take a broader view of RMRR.  How can such a major split in the federal case law persist? And more importantly, how can the NSR federal regulations be deemed clear when multiple federal courts have reached opposite conclusions?