TVA lawsuit up to judge now

North Carolina's lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority for power-plant pollution blown across the state line is now in the hands of a federal judge.

Closing arguments ended Wednesday. U.S. District Judge Lacy Thornburg, who heard 11 days of testimony in Asheville without a jury, made no immediate ruling on the case.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper claimed the nation's largest public utility is a public nuisance that prematurely kills N.C. residents and hurts air quality in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“Clean air is critical to our health and economy and I believe we have presented an excellent case that shows why and how TVA can cut the pollution coming into North Carolina,” Cooper said in a statement. “We will await the court's decision.”

The state wants TVA to reduce emissions from its 11 coal-fired power plants in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky, as N.C. utilities will do by 2013 under the state's Clean Smokestacks Act. The act, enacted in 2002, authorized legal action to curb pollution from neighboring states.

TVA said it has spent $4.8 billion on pollution controls since 1977. It is unreasonable, the power company said, to expect it to install pollution controls in five years compared with the decade the state law allowed N.C. utilities.

“TVA's approach is steady reductions over time,” TVA lawyer Frank Lancaster said during closing arguments. “That's TVA's history and that's TVA's future.”

But James Gulick, a senior deputy attorney general, said the state wants “a mandate, a schedule and a firm deadline” for further reductions.

“TVA's emissions have created a nuisance that is going on today,” Gulick said. “Those emissions are causing harm to public health throughout the region. The nuisance is happening now and North Carolina is entitled to relief.”

A parade of expert witnesses had sparred with lawyers over the extent of TVA's pollution and the harm it is causing.

One N.C. expert, a former top air official of the Environmental Protection Agency, said TVA had illegally released more than 1 million tons of pollutants over 20 years. He admitted that TVA has not been convicted in court of those violations.

Pollution has cut visibility in the Great Smokies park from 77 miles to 15 miles. Bill Cecil Jr., great-grandson of Biltmore House builder George Vanderbilt, testified that tourists complain when they can't see Mount Pisgah 17 miles away.

A Harvard School of Public Health expert estimated that reducing TVA's pollution would avoid 99 premature deaths, 19,000 asthma attacks and 55 fewer emergency-room visits a year in North Carolina.

A TVA witness countered that there's no scientific evidence for that claim. Little of the utility's emissions blow into North Carolina, another witness said, and reducing them would most benefit central Tennessee and northern Alabama.

TVA plants produced 30 percent more electricity than N.C. plants last year, the company said, while releasing about the same amount of sulfur dioxide, which forms haze, health-damaging fine particles and acid rain.

In court filings, North Carolina estimated the cost of the pollution control it seeks at $516 million a year. The state has spent $5.2 million on expert witnesses, studies and legal fees to press its lawsuit, which was filed in 2006.

The Associated Press contributed.