Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 13, 2022


Perrin de Jong, Center for Biological Diversity, (828) 252-4646,
Melissa Williams, Sierra Club,

Lawsuit Launched to Push EPA to Enforce Clean Air Act Protections for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Coal-Fired Power Plant

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.— The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and the town of Carrboro, North Carolina, filed a formal notice of intent today to sue the Environmental Protection Agency to force it to act on a petition challenging the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s inadequate air-pollution permit.

The conservation groups and the town objected to the permit issued by North Carolina regulators because it places no limitations on how much coal UNC may burn at one time.

Without limits on coal burning, the state has no way to fulfill its duty to enforce Clean Air Act restrictions on how much deadly sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide pollution UNC’s plant may emit, risking violations of science-based air-quality standards.

“The people of Carrboro and Chapel Hill can’t wait any longer to be protected from this deadly, unlawful air pollution,” said Perrin de Jong, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Because North Carolina failed to do its job, the EPA needs to step in and enforce the Clean Air Act.”

UNC’s Cameron Avenue coal plant is situated along the border between Carrboro and Chapel Hill. It is adjacent to several historically Black neighborhoods in Carrboro — including Pine Knolls, Tin Top, Northside and Lloyd-Broad — and to the central business districts of both Carrboro and Chapel Hill.

"EPA's failure to provide a timely response to our petition objecting to this ineffectual air permit issued by the Division of Air Quality exposes Carrboro and Chapel Hill communities to dangerous levels of air pollutants,” said Mikaela Curry, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in the Carolinas. “Through this filing, we seek to hold the EPA accountable to its statutory obligations and prompt swift action that will preserve and restore local air quality.”

North Carolina regulators justified UNC’s lax permit provisions with the assumption that control of deadly pollution would be achieved via UNC’s voluntary limits on how much coal can be burned at one time, otherwise known as the “heat input” limit. But the Center has documented 269 instances when UNC exceeded this heat input limit between May 2019 and March 2021 alone.

The North Carolina Division of Air Quality issued UNC’s new air-pollution permit in August 2021. In October 2021 the Center, Sierra Club and Carrboro filed the petition requesting that the EPA object to the permit. The EPA had until Nov. 30, 2021, to respond to the concerns, but has failed to act.


A Center analysis based on expert air-quality modeling found that the new state-issued permit for UNC’s coal plant allows the university power plant to contribute to levels of harmful nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution that are up to four times greater than allowed by the Clean Air Act. Prior modeling indicates that nearly all of UNC’s campus, including outdoor athletic facilities and many residential neighborhoods in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, may be affected by UNC’s coal plant pollution.

UNC’s coal-burning power plant also 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 1.7 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 millions of 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

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