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Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. v. Hudson River-Black River Regulating Dist.

September 16, 2009

NIAGARA MOHAWK POWER CORPORATION, D/B/A NATIONAL GRID, PLAINTIFF,
v.
HUDSON RIVER-BLACK RIVER REGULATING DISTRICT AND NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Norman A. Mordue, Chief U.S. District Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation d/b/a National Grid, is a former hydroelectric power generating company which now merely transmits and distributes energy resources, but still owns various real estate parcels along the Hudson River, Sacandaga River and Black River Basins. This case involves primarily plaintiff's claims against the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District, ("the District") a New York state agency that regulates water flow in the basins of the Hudson, Sacandaga, Black and Beaver Rivers and operates, inter alia, the Conklingville Dam and its related body of water, Great Sacandaga Lake. Niagara Mohawk asserts that the District has been assessing and apportioning "headwater benefit" charges to the public utility pursuant to New York state environmental conservation law in violation of the federal preemption doctrine. Presently before the Court is Niagara Mohawk's motion for a preliminary injunction and the New York State Department of Environmental

Conservation's ("DEC's) motion to dismiss.

II. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Briefly, the relevant facts are these: The District is a New York public benefit corporation created in 1959 by legislation that combined the then-existing Hudson River and Black River Regulating Districts. See N.Y. ENVTL. CONSERV. LAW §§ 15-2137, 15-2139, 15-2141.*fn1 The District's statutory mission is to regulate the flow of the Hudson and Black Rivers "as required by the public welfare including health and safety." N.Y. ENVTL. CONSERV. LAW §§ 15-2103(1), 15-2139(2). In furtherance of this statutory directive, the District, inter alia, builds and operate reservoirs, issues bonds and apportions costs on statutorily defined beneficiaries to finance the construction, maintenance and operation of its river regulating reservoirs. See N.Y. ENVTL. CONSERV. LAW §§ 15-2103(1), 15-2109, 15-2111, 15-2123, 15-2125, 15-2129, 15-2133. The focal point of the District's operation in the Hudson River watershed is its ownership and operation of the Conklingville Dam and its related body of water, the Sacandaga Reservoir, now known as Great Sacandaga Lake.

Pursuant to N.Y. ENVTL. CONSERV. LAW § 15-2121, the District (and its predecessor) is required to apportion the cost of its capital, operation and maintenance costs for the facilities and property it owns through an annual assessment charged to all owners of property that are benefitted by its services. The District (including its predecessor) has used the same method of apportionment to determine its annual assessments of costs continuously since its original adoption in 1925. The District's method of apportionment for the Hudson River Area attributes approximately 95% of the project's benefits to parcels of property that have fall or "head" on the river, and which therefore derive, or potentially derive, the benefit of increased water power production -- whether hydroelectric, industrial (e.g., mills), or merely potential (undeveloped). The remaining 5% is allocated to municipalities along the river for flood control, flow augmentation, and sanitary benefits such as wastewater assimilation.

The District enacts a three-year budget triennially, based on its estimates and determinations related to the cost of operating and maintaining the District's dams, reservoirs and other improvements. N.Y. ENVTL. CONSERV. LAW § 15-2125.*fn2 The District issues annual assessments on July 1st of each year, covering the July 1st - June 30th fiscal year. The assessments allocate a portion of the District's budget on "statutory beneficiaries" in proportion to their percentages set forth in the original 1925 Apportionment of Cost. See N.Y. ENVTL. CONSERV. LAW §§ 15-2121,15-2123,15-2125. Although at the time the original apportionment and assessment was rendered by the District, Niagara Mohawk owned and operated hydroelectric power plants along the Hudson River, the company has since divested all of its power plant operations. Niagara Mohawk's successor, National Grid, continues to own various parcels of land along the Hudson River which the District considers to be "developable" hydroelectric generation sites. These sites are assessed by the District under its original 1925 apportionment method.

National Grid alleges that notwithstanding the District's practice of allocating 95% of its annual Apportionment of Cost to the hydroelectric projects which benefitted from its services and the other 5% to municipalities, various studies and consultants had advised the District over time that numerous unassessed, but benefitted parcels along the Hudson River and Great Sacandaga Lake were not paying the apportionments required by N.Y. ENVTL. CONSERV. LAW § 15-2121.

As stated rather succinctly by counsel for DEC in the agency's motion papers, it seems undisputed at the very least that, "circumstances have evolved" since 1925 "which arguably call for the District to revise its apportionment." Indeed, the District retained a consulting firm, Gomez & Sullivan, in September 1999 to perform an independent Hudson River flow regulation study which revealed finally in July 2003, that there are seven categories of economically determinable benefits (flood protection, lake recreation, hydroelectric power generation, waste assimilation, whitewater recreation, navigation and lakeshore properties) by which the District's annual budget could or should be apportioned.

In September 2002, as part of obtaining a required license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ("FERC") for the operation of the Conklingville Dam and Great Sacandaga Lake, the District entered into an Offer of Settlement with DEC, Niagara Mohawk, and numerous other interested agencies, businesses and property owners which included, inter alia, an agreement by the District to conduct a reapportionment to update its assessment methodology. Concurrent with the licensing order, FERC approved the Offer of Settlement. To date, the District has not completed or even begun the agreed reapportionment effort.

National Grid timely grieved and challenged judicially the apportionments and assessments assigned to it by the District for fiscal years 2000-01 through 2008-09 related to real estate parcels it owns along the Hudson River and Sacandaga River Basins. These state judicial and/or administrative proceedings are still pending. In June 2006, Albany Engineering Corporation, a FERC licensee in its capacity as owner and operator of the Mechanicville Hydroelectric Project, filed an administrative complaint with FERC contending that pursuant to the Federal Power Act ("FPA"), state agencies such as the District lack authority to assess Albany Engineering for the regulating benefits provided by the Conklingville Dam. Specifically, Albany Engineering contended that FPA § 10(f) provides the exclusive means by which the owner of a facility licensed by FERC can assess charges to downstream beneficiaries of its water regulating operations. To wit, FPA § 10(f) provides as follows:

f) Reimbursement by licensee of other licensees, etc.

That whenever any licensee hereunder is directly benefited by the construction work of another licensee, a permittee, or of the United States of a storage reservoir or other headwater improvement, the Commission shall require as a condition of the license that the licensee so benefited shall reimburse the owner of such reservoir or other improvements for such part of the annual charges for interest, maintenance, and depreciation thereon as the Commission ...


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