Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, April 26, 2021


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

North Carolina Air Regulators Propose to Eliminate Restrictions on Harmful Coal Emissions From UNC-Chapel Hill Power Plant

Public’s Opportunity to Comment Ends May 6

ASHEVILLE, N.C.— The North Carolina Division of Air Quality has proposed 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 draft permit puts no limit on how much coal UNC may burn at a time, also known as a “heat input limit.” The limit, which is a part of UNC’s existing air-pollution permit, controls how much pollution is emitted from 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 proposal threatens to increase the health risks faced by people living in the surrounding community, including the historically Black neighborhood of Pine Knolls, which lies in the shadow of UNC’s smokestack.

The critical role the coal-burning limit plays in protecting public health has been revealed during ongoing litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club challenging UNC’s air-permit violations. 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 is legally required.

“The state’s attempt to free UNC from these vital pollution controls feels like a slap in the face with a dirty glove,” said Perrin de Jong, an Asheville-based staff attorney for the Center. “The public needs to let the Division of Air Quality know that UNC needs a heat input limit in its air pollution permit to protect the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community from deadly respiratory pollutants.”

The Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club have uncovered a total of 7,830 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.

“Ultimately, the coal plant needs to be retired. Until then, this draft permit is a major step backwards that will sicken more hospital patients, students, faculty and Black communities already suffering from the UNC coal plant’s toxic plume,” said Will Harlan, senior campaign representative for Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. “DAQ needs to hear — loud and clear — that this permit needs to be rewritten and strengthened to protect our health.”

The Division of Air Quality is currently accepting comments on its proposal to strip the permit of its heat input limit. Comments may be submitted to the agency by email at until 5 p.m. on May 6.

At 6 p.m. on May 4 the agency will hold a remote public hearing to accept public comments. Members of the public may register to speak at the hearing by visiting or by calling (919) 618-0968.


A Center analysis based on expert air-quality modeling found that the existing 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 4 to 6 times greater than allowed under 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.

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. For more information, visit

center locations