Duke Energy settles federal air case for $5.4 million

Steam billows from a smokestack of Duke Energy’s Allen power plant in Belmont.
Steam billows from a smokestack of Duke Energy’s Allen power plant in Belmont. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Duke Energy will spend about $5.4 million to resolve longstanding federal air pollution allegations involving five North Carolina power plants.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Justice Department announced the settlement Thursday of a federal lawsuit filed against Duke in 2000. A trial had been set to begin in Greensboro next month.

The EPA said Duke illegally modified the power plants, increasing their emissions, without also upgrading air pollution controls. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the agency’s interpretation of the rules in 2007.

“This settlement brings five more power plants into compliance under EPA’s national initiative to cut pollution from the country’s largest sources,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for enforcement. “After many years, we’ve secured a strong resolution, one that will help reduce asthma attacks and other serious illnesses for the people of North Carolina.”

Duke has long argued that the modifications were part of routine maintenance that did not require pollution control improvements.

Duke said in a statement that it “denies the alleged violations, maintains it complied fully with federal law, and is agreeing to settle the case solely to avoid the costs and uncertainties of continued litigation.”

The costs of continuing to fight the federal lawsuit would have exceeded the terms of the settlement, Duke said.

The settlement was part of an EPA initiative to reduce emissions from major sources, including coal-fired power plants, under Clean Air Act provisions. The EPA has sued more than 30 electric utilities on similar grounds since 2000 and has resolved most of the litigation.

The federal lawsuit initially focused on 25 units at Duke coal-fired power plants. The government dismissed claims against 12 of them.

The remaining 13 units are at the Riverbend plant west of Charlotte, Allen in Gaston County, Buck in Rowan County, Cliffside in Rutherford County and Dan River in Rockingham County. Duke has already shut down 11 of the units.

Duke agreed in the settlement to operate pollution controls and meet interim emission limits at the remaining two units at the Allen plant before retiring them by 2024. It will retire a third unit by 2024.

The three units had already been scheduled for retirement in 2028. Shutting them down will leave two operating units at Allen but cut the plant’s output by about half, Duke said.

The agreement will reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from Allen by 2,300 tons a year, EPA said. Sulfur dioxide contributes to haze and acid rain. Nitrogen oxides form ozone. Both form fine particles that can damage the heart and lungs.

Duke will pay a $975,000 fine and and spend $4.4 million on environmental projects. The projects will include energy efficiency projects in distressed parts of the Carolinas, donations to the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service and, potentially, installation of electric vehicle charging stations.

The advocacy groups Environmental Defense, the North Carolina Sierra Club, and Environment North Carolina were co-plaintiffs in the case. The groups became involved after what they depict as attempts by former President George W. Bush’s administration to undercut the case.

“This case is being resolved in a way that cleans the air breathed by millions of Carolinians,” said Blan Holman of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents the groups. “This case endured efforts by the Bush-Cheney administration to stifle the cleanup of coal plants, and underscores the essential role of citizen enforcement as a backstop to protect our nation’s air and water from illegal pollution.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender