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What Comes Next for Mercury Emissions from Power Plants?

The U.S. Supreme Court held this morning that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acted unreasonably when it determined in 2000, and again in 2012, that it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.  The central flaw in EPA’s reasoning, the Court held, is that the agency failed to consider the cost of regulation when making the threshold determination that regulation was “appropriate.”  Under Section 112 of the federal Clean Air Act, EPA must conclude that it is “appropriate” to regulate power plant mercury emissions before it can actually regulate those emissions.

The immediate effect of today’s decision is that the ongoing challenge to EPA’s mercury regulations will be remanded to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which previously upheld those regulations.  The D.C. Circuit will then face a choice:  Should it vacate the regulations, or should it leave them in place while giving EPA additional time to attempt to justify the agency’s threshold conclusion that the regulations are “appropriate.”

In the past, the D.C. Circuit has sometimes vacated environmental regulations that it found to suffer from threshold flaws, but it has also occasionally left those regulations in place pending agency revisions.  For example, several years ago the D.C. Circuit found that EPA’s Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) was fatally flawed but it nevertheless declined to vacate CAIR.  Instead, it left CAIR in place pending promulgation of a replacement rule.  It remains to be seen whether the D.C. Circuit will take such an approach here.

If the mercury regulations are vacated, today’s decision may have the ironic effect of helping EPA defend its forthcoming greenhouse gas (GHG) regulations for existing power plants.  One of the principal legal objections to the forthcoming GHG regulations is that EPA allegedly lacks authority to issue them because power plants are regulated for mercury emissions.  Thus, if the mercury regulations go away, one of the principal objections to the GHG regulations will be eliminated.

Nevertheless, today’s decision has to be considered a loss for EPA.  The power plant mercury regulations took over two decades to promulgate and were anticipated to have significant environmental benefits, primarily in the form of reductions of particulate matter and sulfur dioxide emissions.  Today’s decision creates some uncertainty about the future of those regulations.  Equally important, today’s decision is another reminder that a majority of the Supreme Court remains deeply skeptical of EPA’s claims about the agency’s statutory authority.

If there is a silver lining for EPA in today’s decision, it is that the Supreme Court did not go so far as to dictate exactly how EPA is to consider costs.  Instead, the Court concluded:  “It will be up to the Agency to decide (as always, within the limits of reasonable interpretation) how to account for cost.”




Hazardous Waste Recycling Regulations – the Latest Chapter

“A long time ago in a [May 19, 1980 Federal Register] far, far away [or so it seems],” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared its authority to regulate all hazardous secondary material, whether discarded or reused, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and that it would exercise its authority to promote properly conducted waste reclamation.  Ever since then, a kind of Empire/Rebellion struggle has played out over the scope and extent of broad-based recycling exclusions to the RCRA’s solid waste definition.

Over the years, recycling exclusions generally focused on particular industries.  However, EPA’s last final rule, issued in the October 30, 2008 Federal Register during the Bush administration, contained several much broader exclusions.  Those exclusions covered a waste generator’s onsite recycling, offsite recycling in the United States, and transfers of hazardous secondary materials for recycling conducted outside the United States.

The 2008 rule prompted litigation from both industry and the Sierra Club.  The Sierra Club also filed an administrative petition seeking EPA repeal of the final rule.  On September 7, 2010, EPA reached a settlement agreement with the Sierra Club under which EPA agreed to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking and a final rule that addressed the Sierra Club’s concerns.  EPA’s final rule announced on December 10 is the latest chapter in the ongoing saga.

The new final rule rolls back many of the Bush-era provisions that minimized agency filings and involvement.  It contains revisions to the onsite generator recycling exclusion, replaces the exclusion for offsite recycling in the United States, eliminates the exclusion covering recycling outside the United States, and introduces a new exclusion for recycling of certain solvents.  It also contains some new requirements applicable to all recycling activities, and to new variances and non-waste determinations for recycled materials.

EPA’s new final rule is intended to provide greater safeguards against sloppy and sham recycling.  These provisions address accumulation of hazardous secondary materials when there is no near-term prospect for recycling, and require an up-front demonstration that the recycling process will generate a valuable product suitable for reuse.  They also require offsite recycling by a facility with a Part B permit or interim status under the RCRA regulations, or by facility that has obtained a variance after meeting the same types of requirements imposed upon permitted and interim status facilities.

Offsite recyclers and waste generators engaged in onsite recycling must adopt new procedures that include notification and periodic updates of recycling activity, demonstration that the recycling is legitimate, documentation of when accumulation has commenced for the material being recycled, and compliance with recordkeeping requirements and with emergency response and preparedness procedures like those imposed on hazardous waste generators.  In addition, the new rule provides a definition of “contained” that is intended to ensure proper storage of hazardous secondary materials.

Beside adding safeguards to two of the three exclusions instituted in 2008 and eliminating the third one, the new rule introduces an exclusion to cover the recycling of 18 commercial grade solvents.  Under that [...]

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EPA Proposes to Eliminate Affirmative Defenses for Many Clean Air Act Violations

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a proposed rule on September 5, 2014 that would prevent states from including affirmative defenses in their Clean Air Act state implementation plans (SIPs) for emissions exceedances that occur during startup, shutdown and malfunction (SSM) periods.  The proposal would also require several states to revise their existing SIPs so as to conform with EPA’s new approach to affirmative defenses.

EPA’s proposal modifies an earlier February 2013 proposal and arises from a Sierra Club petition asking EPA to revise roughly 40 different SIPs.  Under the new proposal, EPA would largely grant Sierra Club’s petition rather than granting it only as to certain types of affirmative defenses, as EPA had previously proposed.   A list of the states affected by the proposed rule can be found on EPA’s rulemaking website.  If the rule is finalized as proposed, those states will have 18 months from the date of the final rule to submit revised SIPs.

EPA has long allowed the use of affirmative defenses in SIPs, with at least one court holding that it has the authority to do so.  But in April of this year, the D.C. Circuit held that the plain language of the Clean Air Act prohibits EPA from including affirmative defenses in its own non-SIP regulations under Clean Air Act Section 112.  EPA’s September 5 proposal extends the logic of that decision to the SIP context.  But regulated parties should also be aware that the new proposal provides a good illustration of EPA’s “Next Generation Compliance” initiative in action.  The proposal is consistent with the agency’s stated desire to simplify its regulations by reducing the number of exceptions contained in those regulations.

Regulated parties may fear that under EPA’s new proposal they will be unduly penalized for emissions exceedances caused by events beyond their control.  They can take some comfort in understanding that even without affirmative defenses, the Clean Air Act’s penalty provisions do allow the agency and the courts some discretion in setting penalty amounts.  Thus, going forward, facility owners that experience an emission exceedance because of events beyond their control can still argue, on a case-by-case fact-specific basis, that it would be inappropriate to impose any penalties.

Comments on EPA’s proposal are due by November 6, 2014, and, under the terms of a settlement agreement with Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians, EPA is required to issue a final rule by May 22, 2015.




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