For Immediate Release, December 3, 2019


Perrin de Jong, Center for Biological Diversity, (828) 595-1862,
Melissa Williams, Sierra Club, (828) 545-0443,

Lawsuit Aims to Protect Students, Chapel Hill-Carrboro From UNC’s Coal Pollution

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club today sued the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for violations of the Clean Air Act.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro, notes that the violations are largely fueled by the university’s ongoing use of two outdated coal-burning boilers. UNC has violated the Clean Air Act on dozens of occasions in recent years.

“UNC needs to join the 21st century and stop emitting noxious coal fumes into the air that students, athletes and local residents breathe,” said Perrin de Jong, a North Carolina-based staff attorney at the Center. “North Carolina’s flagship public university should be leading the fight against dirty fossil fuels, not burning them.”

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.

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.

“There’s simply no excuse for UNC, with its expertise, knowledge and claimed commitment of supporting clean energy, to still burn dirty, polluting, outdated coal,” said Dave Rogers, deputy regional director for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “Students, teachers, workers and the entire Chapel Hill community must be protected from exposure to the poisonous air pollution that results from burning coal.”

A Center analysis based on expert air-quality modeling found that the existing state-issued permit for UNC’s coal plant allows the university to emit four to six times the limits of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution allowed under the 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 its 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 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 3.5 million members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person's right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying and legal action. For more information, visit