Sierra Club
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North Carolina Chapter, Sierra Club
Explore, Enjoy and Protect the Planet

State awards lax permits to Cliffside despite dubious claims

March 13, 2009

Southern Environmental Law Center:
Gudrun Thompson, Staff Attorney, 919-967-1450
John Suttles, Senior Attorney, 919-967-1450
Kathleen Sullivan, Communications Manager, 919-967-1450 (email)

Representing:
NRDC - Josh Mogerman, 312-651-7909
EDF - Michael Regan, 919-862-6593
SACE - Christina Honkonen, 865-637-6055
NC Sierra Club - Molly Diggins, 919-833-8467

CHAPEL HILL, NC -
The weak pollution permit issued today from the N.C. Division of Air Quality will allow Duke Energy to continue dodging its responsibility to put the best pollution controls possible on an 800-megawatt unit addition to its Cliffside coal-fired power plant and avoid compliance with the Clean Air Act, according to legal experts from a number of the nation’s most respected public health advocacy groups.

After a federal judge sided with conservation groups challenging Duke’s failure to obtain pollution limits to adequately control toxic air pollution, Duke pursued a less stringent permit from the state based solely on its own revision of emissions calculations. Duke’s revised numbers claimed a sudden 85 percent decrease in hazardous air pollutant emissions without any changes to the pollution control equipment proposed.

For three years prior to its revised calculations, Duke stated its Cliffside addition was a major source of air pollution, emitting over 171 tons of hydrochloric acid gas each year. Now Duke suddenly claims that the unit will emit less than 10 tons per year, just below the legal threshold requiring more protective pollution control measures that would significantly reduce emissions of more than 50 other hazardous air pollutants, including mercury, dioxins, and arsenic.

Environmental groups and experts do not believe the company can meet its new lower emission claims during normal operations.  Even the company that manufactures the pollution controls used by Duke’s Cliffside addition won’t guarantee Duke’s claims.  Numerous inconsistencies and incorrect assumptions in the Duke permit raise questions about these revised lower pollution numbers.. An experienced engineer retained by environmental groups to analyze Duke’s proposal contest a number of Duke’s calculations and determined that even a very slight change to any of Duke’s assumptions would increase potential emissions enough to force Duke to adopt the more stringent pollution control measures required by the Clean Air Act.

Among the groups’ concerns are that equipment likely would not perform at the optimal levels assumed by Duke’s revised calculations during everyday operations.  A lax monitoring scheme only requires quarterly tests of the plant’s emissions for a few hours scheduled with advance notice to the plant rather than regular or continuous monitoring that would show whether the unit is in compliance every day.

By reworking its numbers, Duke avoids requirements to achieve maximum pollution controls for mercury, arsenic, dioxins, and the other 50 or more hazardous air pollutants the Cliffside addition would emit.  For example, through its latest scheme, Duke will be permitted to emit 134 pounds per year of mercury, a potent toxin, while other similar plants have been limited to just 4 pounds of mercury a year.

Mercury already is a serious public health problem in North Carolina.  The state’s toxicologist has estimated that every year over 13,600 North Carolina children are born who have been exposed to unsafe levels of mercury, putting them at risk of life-long disabilities including delayed walking and talking, learning disabilities, lowered IQ, and cerebral palsy.  Similarly, there would be no limits at all for dioxin, one of the most potent carcinogens known to humans, or for arsenic and other heavy metals, which have been shown to cause cancer, birth defects, decreased intelligence, central nervous system damage, depressed immune systems, respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, and heart and vascular problems.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) represent Environmental Defense Fund, National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), NRDC, Sierra Club and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in the case. The groups include thousands of North Carolina residents, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains and other nearby natural areas already affected by pollution from Cliffside.
Following are reactions from the groups involved:

“Duke’s numbers games don’t add up and don’t change the fact that Cliffside is a major source of dangerous toxic pollutants,” said Derb Carter, Carolinas director for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). “Deciding a huge coal-fired power plant is a minor source of hazardous pollutants is like calling the New York Yankees a minor league team.  Duke’s sleight of hand tricks put the health of our citizens at risk.”
“Duke has pulled a fast one on the people of North Carolina, and, if this decision stands, will be allowed to emit some twenty times more mercury from its new coal than should be allowed,” said Patrice Simms, a Senior Attorney for NRDC. “The next time bass fishers in the Carolinas cannot eat their catch due to mercury advisories, they should think of Duke and the state of North Carolina refusing to follow the law and clean up mercury emissions as much as possible.”

“North Carolina has permitted Duke to emit mercury and other highly toxic pollutants without the restrictions needed to protect our health,” said Stephanie Kodish, clean air counsel with the National Parks Conservation Association. “This decision, if left unchecked, will cause tens of thousands of North Carolina residents to breathe dirtier air, and could seriously diminish visibility and air quality in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge National Parkway.”

“It is impossible to understand how an 800 megawatt coal plant is not a major source of toxic air pollution,” said Michael Regan, SE Climate and Air Policy Director for Environmental Defense Fund. “The fact that North Carolina issued this permit when there are cleaner energy solutions available is an insult to the people who live, work and breathe here.”

“It is inconceivable that one of the largest coal plants in the state could qualify as a minor source of air pollution,” said Stephen Smith executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Bold state agencies and Governors around the country are taking a stand for clean energy and saying no to old coal. It’s high time NC get with the game for a clean energy future.”

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The Natural Resources Defense Council is an international, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has 1.2 million members and online activists, served from offices in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Beijing. http://www.nrdc.org/

The Southern Environmental Law Center uses the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama).  Founded in 1986, SELC’s staff of 40 attorneys includes experts on air and energy, water, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.  SELC is a non-profit organization and works with more than 100 partner groups.  http://www.southernenvironment.org/

Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is a not-for-profit, non-partisan organization working to promote responsible energy choices that solve global warming problems and ensure clean, safe, healthy communities throughout the Southeast. http://www.cleanenergy.org/

A leading national nonprofit organization, Environmental Defense Fund represents more than 500,000 members.  Since 1967, Environmental Defense Fund has linked science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships to create breakthrough solutions to the most serious environmental problems.  For more information, visit http://www.edf.org/.

Sierra Club is the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization with over 17,000 members in North Carolina.

Since 1919, the nonpartisan, non-profit National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice of the American people in protecting and enhancing our National Park System. NPCA, its 340,000 members, and partners work together to protect the park system and preserve our nation’s natural, historical, and cultural heritage for our children and grandchildren. http://www.npca.org/