School Buses, Solar Panels & Consent Agreements (Oh My!)

Issue 5 and Volume 113.

By Robynn Andracsek, P.E. Contributing Editor and Whitney Smith, Burns & McDonnell

More and more coal-fired power plants are being swept into consent decree agreements for New Source Review violations after conducting “routine maintenance” that is no longer considered “routine” according to the Clean Air Act.

These consent decree agreements follow a general formula: Add controls or shut down units, pay a fine, surrender SO2 and NOX allowances and conduct supplemental environmental projects (SEP). This last area, the SEP, is not a regulatory requirement but rather a voluntary offering that may lower the cash penalty for a violation and give you a chance to get a little bit creative while doing some good for your community (as well as helping to mend your public image).

SEPs provide a unique opportunity for government, developers, environmentalists and communities to all work together towards a common goal. However, there are some guidelines you should follow when proposing SEPs during your consent agreement negotiations:

  • You don’t want an ongoing program
  • You do want a defined start and end date to the program
  • You do want to consider projects that test new ideas or technologies
  • You do want to work with local universities on research
  • You do want to find issues that your community is concerned about (or at least is aware of), and
  • You do want to have several projects of varying size.

Before beginning negotiations, create your own menu of project options and their prices. Consider which projects you’re already involved in; you can’t take credit for something you’re already doing but you might be able to expand an existing project’s scope.

Keep in mind that SEPs can directly benefit the community. For example, by working with local state agencies you can determine issues of local concerns. Community input is useful and public involvement should begin as soon as you decide to participate in a SEP. This will help you determine what projects would be most beneficial to your area.

SEPs range in value from $4 million to $25 million and can be equal to several times that of the penalty. One of the most common SEPs is to retrofit or convert diesel school buses. The accompanying table shows the types of projects that have been included in recent consent agreements.

Click here to enlarge image

The ultimate goal of a SEP should be to improve, protect or reduce risks and add to the greater good of the community or the environment. Incentives for taking part in a SEP make it an even better decision. Incorporating SEPs into a settlement turns what otherwise could be a negative action into an opportunity to benefit all parties.