CHAPEL HILL, N.C.— A federal district court judge has denied a motion by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to dismiss nine of 10 allegations of Clean Air Act violations at the university’s coal-fired power plant.
The ruling was handed down late Friday by a U.S. District Court judge for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro. The court is expected to rule on UNC’s motion to dismiss the final allegation after oral arguments later this week.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club’s lawsuit, filed in December 2019, focuses largely on violations fueled by the university’s ongoing use of two outdated coal-burning boilers to produce power. The claims the court refused to dismiss involved air-permit violations regarding pollution control, pollution monitoring and noncompliance reporting requirements.
“As COVID-19 infections spike in North Carolina, UNC officials have a moral obligation to reduce the community’s exposure to dangerous air pollution that can weaken our respiratory health,” said Perrin de Jong, a North Carolina-based staff attorney at the Center. “UNC’s polluting coal plant has a record of permit violations that reveals a failure to take necessary precautions to protect the health of students and residents. That needs to change.”
Previous investigations by the Center uncovered evidence of violations of federal pollution-control requirements at the UNC plant, including limits on the amount of coal permitted to be burned.
Other violations include UNC’s failure to satisfy pollution-monitoring obligations and compliance reporting failures to the North Carolina Division of Air Quality and federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to the lawsuit.
A previous Center analysis based on expert air-quality modeling found that the existing state-issued permit allows the university power plant to contribute to levels of harmful nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution that are four to six times greater than allowed under the U.S. Clean Air Act.
These models indicate that nearly the entire campus, including outdoor athletic facilities and several residential neighborhoods in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, may be affected by this harmful pollution.
In addition, UNC’s coal-burning power plant emits brain-damaging mercury and lead, as well as hydrochloric acid. The university gets its coal from Appalachia, where damaging mining practices poison streams critical to the survival of a variety of wildlife, including the Big Sandy crayfish, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Soon after committing to end the use of coal on campus in 2010, UNC reneged on the pledge. It is the only institution of higher learning in North Carolina still operating a coal-burning power plant.