ASHEVILLE, N.C.— The North Carolina Division of Air Quality has issued a new air-pollution permit for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s coal-fired power plant that eliminates crucial protections for local residents and the environment.
The new permit, issued on Aug. 5, puts no limit on how much coal UNC may burn at a time, also known as a “heat input limit.” The limit, which was a part of UNC’s former air-pollution permit, controls how much air pollution is emitted by the plant.
Without it the Division of Air Quality cannot enforce limits on how much deadly sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide pollution the plant is allowed to emit, risking violations of science-based air-quality standards. The new permit threatens the surrounding community with increased risk of respiratory illness. Those areas include the historically Black neighborhoods of Pine Knolls and Northside, which lie within a few blocks of UNC’s smokestack.
“This backward step by state regulators directly puts local residents at increased risk from deadly air pollutants,” said Perrin de Jong, an Asheville-based staff attorney at the Center. “It’s appalling that officials chose to ignore the overwhelming call among community members most affected by the pollution for maintaining the controls on UNC’s harmful emissions.”
The critical role the coal-burning limit plays in protecting public health has been revealed during ongoing litigation challenging UNC’s air-permit violations by the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club. Through an examination of UNC’s compliance records, the environmental plaintiffs uncovered 269 heat input limit violations by UNC since May 2019. Advocates also won a federal court order instructing UNC that compliance with its heat input limit was legally required under its former permit.
The Division of Air Quality issued UNC’s new air pollution permit Aug. 5 but did not announce or provide the new permit for public inspection through the ordinary channels until Aug. 9, after repeatedly being asked why the release of the permit to the public was being delayed.
Also, the Division of Air Quality received extensive criticism during the public comment period for removing the heat input limit from the new permit without mentioning the change in the permit’s “table of changes,” which is specifically designed to highlight every change to the permit. But the heat input limit’s removal is still omitted from the table of changes for the final permit.
“While the state works hand in glove with UNC to protect the university’s ability to pollute with impunity, it would clearly prefer to do so under the cover of darkness,” said de Jong. “The public has a right to know about the actions its government is taking to remove our protection from deadly coal pollution.”
The Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club have uncovered thousands of air-pollution permit violations by UNC since December 2014. Of those, 271 were a result of UNC burning too much coal, in violation of its heat input limit.
A Center analysis based on expert air-quality modeling found that the former state-issued permit for UNC’s coal plant allowed 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 by the U.S. Clean Air Act. The models indicate that nearly the entire campus, including outdoor athletic facilities and many residential neighborhoods in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, may be affected by the 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.