Downwinders Had A Good Day in Court Battling EPA Over Cement Plant Rules

cement1Downwinders has been trying to get new emission limits for cement plants since the mid-1990's. We're still trying.

The first real reform in those rules during the Clinton Administration were pathetically inadequate. Downwinders and other groups assisted by DC-based Earth Justice sued to get them strengthened. We won. When new rules finally emerged from EPA in 2009, they were much better. Many of you came out to the historic national hearing at the DFW Airport hotel to testify in favor of them.

These rules were on their way to being signed by President Obama when they got hijacked by industry at their stop at the Office of Management and Budget, which must review all new regulations. When they emerged, they were unrecognizable in many ways, with deadlines pushed back by years and the important Particulate Matter standard being significantly weakened.

Once again, we're back in court trying to get these watered down rules thrown out. Last week, the DC appeals court that usually takes up federal regulatory fights heard oral arguments from both sides, and even the Republican judges on the panel were skeptical of the Administration's rewrite job.

Reprinted in full below is an inside-the-Beltway account of the proceedings that gives you some idea of what's at stake and what a good day citizens and their representatives enjoyed in court. No date on when to expect a ruling. Even then, if we win, the rules go back to EPA to be rewritten again, albeit with more judicial constraint…theoretically at least.

Judges seem skeptical of EPA claims in cement emissions case

Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter

Published: Thursday, October 24, 2013

Public health advocates argued in court today that U.S. EPA unlawfully weakened and delayed air standards for cement manufacturers, appearing to gain some traction with a panel of federal appellate judges.

The Natural Resources Defense Council contends EPA caved to industry pressure when it revised its National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, or NESHAP, for portland cement kilns and pushed back its compliance date by two years.

EPA's standards apply to several pollutants, including particulate matter, mercury and other acid gases. The agency revised the particulate matter standard after a court ruling in 2011, but advocates claim the agency did more than the ruling required.

James Pew of Earthjustice, representing the NRDC, told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that EPA "gratuitously weakened the particulate matter standard" and violated the "plain and literal meaning" of the Clean Air Act.

Further, he said, many of the issues EPA addressed with its changes "didn't come up" in the previous case.

The cement NESHAP has long been the subject of controversy and litigation.

The kilns are one of the top sources of man-made mercury emissions in the United States. Public health advocates forced EPA to set the standards in a 2010 lawsuit, and when the agency issued the standards later that year it said they would prevent 960 to 2,500 deaths per year.

Industry, however, quickly challenged the standards at the D.C. Circuit. In December 2011, the court ordered EPA to reconsider the standards by taking commercial incinerators that burn solid waste out of its calculations. However, the court largely left the standards in place, including their 2013 compliance deadline (E&ENews PM, Dec. 9, 2011).

When EPA recalculated the standard for particulate matter, the advocates claim the agency made it less stringent. Additionally, EPA reached a settlement with the portland cement industry to delay compliance to September 2015 for all pollutants — not just particulate matter (Greenwire, Dec. 7, 2012).

Public health advocates challenged both actions, as well as a shift from continuous monitoring to one-time annual stack testing for compliance — which also changed the particulate matter standard. The environmentalists also question the standard's inclusion of an "affirmative defense" that protects kilns from citizen lawsuits if they violate the standards during an unavoidable malfunction.

Each issue came up today before a three-judge panel, which included two judges who are considered potential future Supreme Court nominees. The panel appeared receptive to some of the advocates' arguments but not to others.

For example, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, one of the country's leading conservative jurists, appeared skeptical of EPA's decision to delay standards for mercury and other gases to 2015, even though the Clean Air Act says standards must take effect within three years. The 2010 standards for those pollutants, which weren't affected by the D.C. Circuit ruling in 2011, should be in effect now.

"I don't understand," said Kavanaugh, a Republican appointee. "I need help. I don't understand the interrelatedness."

Further, Senior Judge Harry Edwards, a Democratic appointee, said EPA could have easily linked the standards by saying it wasn't "practicable" to meet some without meeting the others. But EPA, Edwards said, never made that argument in the rulemaking.

"I'm really not following this," Edwards said. "Where does the agency make the finding … that compliance couldn't be done practicably?"

Matthew Oakes of the Department of Justice, representing EPA, countered that all the standards are related because the pollution control technology required to limit particulate matter also controls emissions of mercury and other gases. Therefore, it didn't make sense to require kilns to install technology for mercury, for example, before it knew the final particulate matter standard, he said.

That argument was echoed by Carter Phillips of Sidley Austin LLP, representing the cement industry, which intervened in the case.

"You cannot implement any of them in a one-off system," he said.

It was unclear which way the judges were leaning with regard to the advocates' arguments surrounding the particulate matter standard itself. But they appeared receptive to their challenge to EPA's affirmative defense.

Oakes argued that the advocates lacked standing to challenge the affirmative defense, meaning they had failed to prove how they would be injured by it. That notion was flatly rejected by the panel, which said the defense would allow kilns to, at times, exceed the standards, which would harm human health. Therefore, the advocates have grounds to bring the lawsuit, the judges said.

The panel was also skeptical of EPA's arguments on the substantive issue of whether EPA could create the affirmative defense in the first place. Judge Srikanth Srinivasan, President Obama's first appointee to the D.C. Circuit and a leading liberal judge, contended that the Clean Air Act didn't grant EPA that ability.

"This authority wasn't delegated to the EPA to begin with," he said.