U.S. Seeks to Curtail Duke Energy's Emissions

GREENSBORO, North Carolina, December 27, 2000 (ENS) - The U.S. government has taken legal action against Duke Energy company, charging that eight of the electric utility's coal fired power plants for years illegally released massive amounts of air pollutants. In a lawsuit filed last week, the Department of Justice accuses Duke of violating the federal Clean Air Act by making major modifications to its plants in the Carolinas without installing equipment required to control smog, acid rain and soot.

power plant

Coal fired power plants provide electricity to grids across the United States, but the facilities also generate large amounts of air pollution. (Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

According to the complaint, Charlotte, North Carolina based Duke Energy operated the plants for more than a decade without the best available emissions control technology, increasing air pollution near the facilities and downwind of the plants, along the Eastern Seaboard.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Greensboro, North Carolina, seeks to force the company to install appropriate air pollution control technology that will significantly reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The U.S. is also seeking civil penalties under the Clean Air Act, which authorizes fines of up to $25,000 for each day of violation at each plant prior to January 30, 1997, and $27,500 for each day thereafter.

The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is the latest step in the federal government's initiative to stop illegal pollution from coal fired power plants. The EPA and the Justice Department last year embarked on a program designed to reduce dramatically the amount of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter that electric utility plants release into the atmosphere.

power plant

Under the Clinton Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched an initiative to clean up dirty coal fired power plants. (Photo by Carole Swinehart, courtesy of Michigan Sea Extension)

Power plants existing at the time the Clean Air Act was amended in the late 1970s were "grandfathered," meaning that their owners were not required to retrofit them with new air pollution control equipment unless they underwent "major modifications."

The government asserts that Duke Energy made major modifications to its plants in order to extend their lives and avoid the cost of building new plants. Under the Clean Air Act, modifications of this kind require installation of the "best available control technology" - a requirement that the government says Duke failed to follow.

Coal fired power plants produce more pollution than any other industry in the United States. They account for almost 70 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions each year and 30 percent of nitrogen oxides emissions.

In addition to their detrimental health effects on asthma sufferers, the elderly and children, power plant emissions have been linked to forest degradation, waterway damage, reservoir contamination and deterioration of stone and copper in buildings.


Power plants burn mountains of coal each year. (Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

To combat these environmental effects, the EPA and the Justice Department in November 1999 launched a national initiative, targeting electric utilities throughout the Midwest and Southeast whose coal fired power plants allegedly violated the law. In addition to Duke Energy, the United States has brought legal actions for Clean Air Act violations against American Electric Power, Cinergy, FirstEnergy, Illinois Power, Southern Indiana Gas & Electric Company, the Southern Company and the Tampa Electric Company.

The EPA has brought a related administrative action against the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal agency that owns and operates many coal fired power plants.

Last week, the EPA and the Justice Department announced a $1.4 billion agreement with Cinergy to settle the Clean Air Act claims levied against that company. Under the terms of the agreement, Cinergy will upgrade pollution control technology at 10 of its power plants in Ohio and Indiana.

In February 2000, the government reached a similar settlement with the Tampa Electric Company, which will address pollution generated by two Florida power plants. Last month, the government reached an agreement in principle with Virginia Electric Power Company, which calls for the Richmond based utility to undertake major environmental improvements at eight plants in Virginia and West Virginia.

The lawsuits filed against the other utilities are ongoing.