Okies from Muskogee 1; Sierra Club 0. Another NSR Case Goes Down on Statute of Limitations Grounds

Posted on March 10, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

The law is full of fine distinctions.  Today’s example?  A divided 10th Circuit panel affirmed dismissal of the Sierra Club’s citizen suit claims against Oklahoma Gas and Electric concerning alleged PSD violations at OG&E’s Muskogee plant muskogeebecause the Sierra Club did not sue within five years of the commencement of construction – even though Sierra Club did sue within five years of the completion of construction.

I have not seen any other cases present this issue so squarely.  For the majority, the decision was relatively easy.  Because the CAA has no limitations provisions, the default five-year limitations period set forth at 28 USC § 2462 applies.  Section 2462 provides that suits must be brought “within five years from the date when the claim first accrued.”  That “first accrued” language was Sierra Club’s downfall.  The court decided that a claim “first accrues” when a plaintiff has a right to bring a claim.  In the PSD context, that is when a defendant commences construction or modification without a permit.  Because the Sierra Club did not file within five years after OG&E commenced construction, the complaint was late.

Not so fast, argued the dissent. As the dissent rightly noted, the CAA does not make commencing construction or modification without a required PSD permit a violation; it makes “the construction or modification of any source” without a permit a violation.  Thus, the dissent argued, OG&E was still “constructing” its project without a permit during a period less than five years before Sierra Club brought suit and was still in violation, so the suit was timely.

I should note that, whether the dissent is correct or not, it did rightly distinguish two other cases, United States v. Midwest Generation and United States v. EME Homer City Generation, which have been cited in opposition to “continuing violation” theories.  As the dissent emphasized, those cases concerned whether operation of the modified facility, after construction was complete, constituted continuing violations.  The dissent agreed that post-construction operations cannot effectively toll the statute of limitations. However, that is a different question than whether continuing construction keeps the limitations period open.  Indeed, the EME Homer City decision specifically contemplated the possibility that:

"the maximum daily fine accrues each day the owner or operator spends modifying or constructing the facility – from the beginning of construction to the end of construction."

That sounds like a basis for new claims accruing each day, thus triggering a new limitations period.  I think that this case is a close question. However, as interested as the Supreme Court seems to be in the CAA these days, I don’t see it taking this case, and certainly not before there is a circuit split on the issue.

What is impossible to determine is what caused the Sierra Club to wait.  Why take the chance?  It does seem a self-inflicted wound either way.

(Very quickly, I’ll note that the majority also dismissed Sierra Club’s injunctive relief claims under the concurrent remedies doctrine.  That’s an important issue, but not a difficult or interesting one, at least where the government is not a party.)

Is the NSR Enforcement Initiative Dead Yet? Injunctive Relief Claims Dismissed Against U.S. Steel

Posted on April 29, 2014 by Seth Jaffe

On April 18, EPA lost another NSR enforcement case. Not only that, but this was a case EPA had previously won. As we noted last August, Chief Judge Philip Simon of the Northern District of Indiana, had previously ruled that the United States could pursue injunctive relief claims against United States Steel with respect to allegations by EPA that US Steel had made major modifications to its plant in Gary, Indiana, in 1990 without complying with NSR requirements.

Having reread the 7th Circuit opinion in United States v. Midwest Generation, Judge Simon has had a change of heart and now has concluded that injunctive relief claims (as well as damages) are barred by the statute of limitations, even where the same entity that allegedly caused the original violation still owns the facility. Judge Simon concluded that the Court of Appeals had spoken with sufficient clarity to bind him. The language he cited was this:

"Midwest cannot be liable when its predecessor in interest would not have been liable had it owned the plants continuously. (Italics supplied by Judge Simon.)"

Judge Simon seems to have felt more compelled than persuaded.

"Candidly, it is a little difficult to understand the basis for the statements in Midwest Generation that even claims for injunctions have to be brought within five years. But that is what Midwest Generation appears to mandate. And in a hierarchical system of courts, my job as a trial judge is to do as my superiors tell me.

So while the basis for applying a limitations period to the EPA’s injunction claim under §§ 7475 and 7503 is thinly explained in Midwest Generation, upon reconsideration I do think that’s the outcome required of me here."

One final note. In his original opinion, Judge Simon ruled against US Steel, in part, because the concurrent remedy doctrine, which US Steel argued barred injunctive relief where damages were not available, could not be applied against the United States. As Judge Simon noted, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals did not discuss the concurrent remedy doctrine, so we don’t know the basis of its holding that a party continuously owning a facility that is alleged to have violated the NSR provisions of the CAA more than five years ago is not subject to injunctive relief. However, it is worth pointing out, as we discussed last month, that Judge James Payne, of the Eastern District of Oklahoma, dismissed injunctive relief claims brought by the Sierra Club (not the government, of course), relying on the concurrent remedy doctrine.

Something tells me that the United States isn’t quite ready to give up on these cases, notwithstanding a string of recent defeats. The NSR enforcement initiative may be in trouble, but it’s not quite dead yet.