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Environmental Groups Sue UNC Over Power Plant Emissions

Groups allege years of oversight failures

by: Tristan Dufresne,

CHAPEL HILL —Two environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, claiming the school's steam-powered energy production practices are in violation of the Clean Air Act of 1963.

The lawsuit was filed on December 3 to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina by the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

"The violations are largely fueled by the university’s ongoing use of two outdated coal-burning boilers," the CBD said in a press release the same day. "Investigations by the Center uncovered violations of federal pollution-control requirements at the UNC plant, including limits on the amount of coal permitted to be burned."

The suit lists nine compliance violations by UNC, including burning too much coal, skipping inspections, poor record-keeping, emitting twice the allowed limit of carbon monoxide during one month, and not reporting their noncompliance to either N.C. Department of Environmental Quality or the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The claims span five years and range in their scope; one claim alleges failure to inspect emergency generators’ air cleaners from June 2016 through 2018, while another claim alleges a failure to do an assessment one of their boilers on July 22, 2019.

The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) are both private nonprofit environmental advocacy organizations that use grassroots activism and the legal system to raise awareness of, and protect against, ecological degradation and species extinction.

UNC has two power plants operating, one on Cameron Avenue and the other on Manning Drive. The Cameron Avenue plant, called the Cogeneration Facility, is the subject of the suit. It houses two boilers that burn coal, but can also use natural gas, No. 2 fuel oil and wood. All other boilers burn natural gas and/or oil.

If UNC’s plant is polluting above limits, the campus, hospital and nearby parts of Chapel Hill and Carrboro may be exposed to unsafe air. The CDC lists two of the compounds present in emissions from burning coal, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, as toxic substances that can irritate people’s respiratory systems, especially people who are younger, ill or have asthma. Both pollutants also contribute to haze and acid rain, which damage the environment.

If UNC is improperly handling coal ash — the suit alleges months of missed inspections — then the material, which contains the contaminants mercury, cadmium and arsenic, may pollute air when it escapes and water around its final dumping site.

The CBD released an analysis of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emitted by both power plants in 2018 written by consultant Lindsey Meyers. Meyers’ models showed that the pollutants were being emitted at unsafe levels, in areas closest to the plants concentrating at more than twice the National Ambient Air Quality Standard.

The lawsuit claims "UNC has continually failed to maintain operational records" of the self-inspections needed for compliance in a variety of situations, including monthly inspections for duct work and filter leaks.

The CBD press releases also complained of environmental damage done long before UNC burns its coal, when the coal is mined in Appalachia.

The Sundial reached out to UNC-Chapel Hill administrators for comment and received a November 15 letter sent from Vice Chancellor for Finance and Operations Jonathan Pruitt to CBD staff attorney Perrin de Jong. The letter calls the coal-burning Cogeneration Facility "mission-critical...for the UNC Health Care System" as well as research activities and other operating needs.

Though Pruitt acknowledges “a few, isolated instances of record-keeping discrepancies and other minor errors” such as delays in inspections, he says the University’s records contradict many of the allegations.

The letter concludes with a defense of UNC Chapel Hill’s combustion sources, calling them “the gold standard of how to run a compliance program for a major research university that also supports a world-class health-care system.” However, wrote Pruitt, “We share the [CBD’s] goals of reducing fossil fuel consumption and ultimately eliminating coal as a fuel source.”

De Jong told the Sundial, "Obviously, UNC put its best foot forward in that letter and said things that are convenient for [them] to say; but there's only one way to find out if they have good defenses to these Clean Air Act violations, and that's to go ahead and litigate the claims.

"We have an instance here where we spent a couple years trying mightily to get many public records...and it took a couple of years and great struggle to get the materials we have been able to obtain," de Jong said. "But there are many documents we were never able to get hold of...and it’s going to be very interesting to see if they are going to be able to produce them."

The increased scrutiny on UNC's emissions practices began in 2014, when CBD scientists concluded that UNC used faulty data in its application for a permit renewal from the NC Department of Air Quality.

"This permit has been sitting there for some four plus years now without any action by the DAQ," de Jong said.

The Clean Air Act stipulates that all state regulators are required to rule on permit application within 18 months.

CBD and Sierra Club lawyers are asking the courts to bring UNC back into compliance with the Clean Air Act and to impose civil penalties ranging from $37,500 to $45,268 per day per violation. (The amount requested is higher for violations that are deemed to be more recent.)

If UNC is required to pay such penalties, the plaintiffs ask that $100,000 of the penalties be used in projects for public health and the environment (the maximum amount allowed). The U.S. Treasury would collect any further penalties to finance air compliance and enforcement.

"UNC is the only institution of higher learning in the state that is still operating on coal-fired power plants," de Jong said. (The Daily Tarheel, UNC Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, stated the same in 2017.) "If all the schools can figure out how to get off coal, what is UNC's excuse?"

Holden Thorpe, former UNC Chapel Hill chancellor, made a promise in 2010 that, within a decade, coal would no longer power the campus. The administration retracted that promise in 2017, citing both cost of conversion and inefficient alternatives as reasons.

Activist Gary Richards, working with both CBD and the Sierra Club, has been protesting outside of UNC's coal plant regularly alongside students and community members. He told the Sundial that it is not enough for UNC to simply come into compliance with their state permit, rather, "The school needs to get off coal entirely...although they may have to be dragged kicking and screaming."

And if the courts don’t help, and UNC doesn’t listen to protesters? "Civil disobedience may be the next necessary step," said Richards.

De Jong and the conservation groups aren’t addressing hopes and protests in their suit. De Jong said their focus is compliance: "One way or another, they must comply with the law."

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