On July 26th, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit brought by the State of North Carolina against the Tennessee Valley Authority (“TVA”) alleging that interstate air emissions from TVA power plants create a public nuisance. The dismissal set aside an injunction that would have required the installation of more than a billion dollars worth of emissions control technologies at four TVA plants in Alabama and Tennessee. North Carolina v. TVA, — F.3d —, 2010 WL 2891572 (4th Cir. Jul. 26, 2010).
The Fourth Circuit rejected the use of “vague public nuisance standards” to address activities that are expressly permitted and extensively regulated under the Clean Air Act. It stressed the potential for chaos among states resulting from a patchwork of nuisance injunctions and for disruption of expectations and reliance interests of those actors that have complied with the Act’s requirements. However, the Court refrained from completely preempting the field of air emissions regulation, noting that the Clean Air Act’s savings clause may allow for certain common law nuisance claims.
Citing principles of federalism, the Fourth Circuit also criticized the district court’s decision for its application of North Carolina law extraterritorially to TVA plants located in Alabama and Tennessee by crafting an injunction that relied on the emissions standards of a North Carolina state law. The three-judge panel highlighted the remedies that remain available to North Carolina, including the Clean Air Act’s Section 126 petition process, the comment period for State Implementation Plans, judicial review of EPA actions, as well as citizen suit remedies under the Clean Air Act.
While the precedential impact of the opinion is yet unclear, the participation of the attorneys general of sixteen other states, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo, in an amicus brief supporting the authority of states to bring public nuisance actions to abate interstate pollution signals the importance of the issue. Although the Fourth Circuit’s decision did not involve claims relating to greenhouse gas emissions, a recent petition for certiorari challenging the Second Circuit’s common law nuisance findings with respect to greenhouse gas emissions cited North Carolina v. TVA as evidence that comprehensive regulation under the Clean Air Act can displace federal common law nuisance claims. Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., 582 F.3d 309 (2d Cir. 2009), petition for cert. filed, No. 10- (U.S. Aug. 2, 2010). This issue will continue to percolate in the courts unless and until it is resolved by the Supreme Court.