Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, July 6, 2020


Perrin de Jong, Center for Biological Diversity, (828) 252-4646,
Melissa Williams, Sierra Club, (828) 545-0443,

New Air Pollution Violation Revealed at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Coal Plant

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club today filed an amended complaint highlighting a previously undisclosed violation of the Clean Air Act by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s coal-fired power plant.

The groups’ filing is part of a lawsuit that focuses largely on violations fueled by the university’s ongoing use of two outdated coal-burning boilers. Today’s filing points to UNC’s admission that it violated the Clean Air Act by running too many sources of pollution at the same time, in violation of its air permit.

“As COVID-19 continues to threaten North Carolina, UNC-Chapel Hill has a moral obligation to limit the community’s exposure to any air pollution that can weaken our respiratory health,” said Perrin de Jong, a North Carolina-based staff attorney at the Center. “Lives are on the line in Orange County, but UNC’s polluting coal plant has a record of permit violations that reveals a failure to take necessary precautions.”

Previous 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.

“It’s shameful that an institution of UNC’s stature, with its public commitments to clean energy, would continue to drag down the health of its students, faculty and staff by burning dirty, polluting, outdated coal,” said Will Harlan, senior representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in North Carolina. “UNC must live up to its own standards, not just for the sake of its reputation as a leading university, but for the health of the entire Chapel Hill community.”

A previous 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 1.7 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 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.

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