For Immediate Release, October 22, 2020


Perrin de Jong, (828) 595-1862,

Court Denies UNC’s Request to Dismiss Claims That University’s Power Plant Burned More Coal Than Permitted

Ruling Allows Clean Air Act Lawsuit to Proceed to Trial

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.— A federal district court judge has denied a motion by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to dismiss claims that its power plant burned more coal than permitted.

The ruling was handed down Wednesday by a U.S. District Court judge for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro. It allows a Clean Air Act lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club to proceed to trial.

Wednesday’s ruling follows the court’s decision earlier this month denying the university’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit’s nine other claims.

“UNC’s limit on how much coal may be burned at any one time is the most fundamental kind of pollution control imposed by the Clean Air Act,” said Perrin de Jong, a North Carolina-based staff attorney at the Center. “We’re very pleased the court has recognized that UNC must comply with this essential requirement in order to protect public health and the environment in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community.”

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Club’s lawsuit, filed in December 2019, focuses largely on violations fueled by the university’s ongoing use of two outdated coal-burning boilers to produce power.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 nine claims the court previously refused to dismiss involved air-permit violations regarding pollution control, pollution monitoring and noncompliance reporting requirements.

A 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, protected 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.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.