Archived Outdoors

State sues TVA for polluting mountains’ air

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper filed a lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority last week seeking to significantly reduce pollution from TVA’s coal-fired power plants.

Pollution from TVA’s coal plants, which do not meet current federal emissions standards, damages the health of North Carolina’s people, its economy and natural resources, according to Cooper.

“TVA’s pollution is making North Carolinians sick, damaging our economy and harming our environment,” Cooper said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit last week. “It must stop. Legal action is the last resort, but it’s necessary to force TVA to do what’s right.”

Environmental groups are applauding the move.

“I think it is about time,” said Avram Friedman, director if the Canary Coalition, a statewide air quality advocacy group based in Sylva. “It is great it is happening, and I think it is a tribute to the grassroots organizations in this state and the voice of the people who have spurred our public officials into action.”

The lawsuit has been on the horizon ever since North Carolina passed the Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002, whereby state residents agreed to foot the bill for emissions upgrades at power plants by paying slightly higher electricity bills. During its passage, the Clean Smokestack Act was touted as a tool that would give the state the “moral high ground” to ask utilities in neighboring states to do the same. Progress Energy’s coal-power plant in Asheville last year was the first to meet the state’s tough new requirements.

The suit was filed in federal court in Asheville. TVA had not filed a response as of Monday. The lawsuit calls TVA’s pollution a public nuisance that threatens the health of North Carolina residents.

Cooper’s office estimates that out-of-state power plant emissions are responsible each year for more than 15,000 illnesses and hundreds of emergency room visits and deaths in North Carolina alone.

Cooper claims smog caused by TVA emissions pollutes scenic vistas in the mountains and hurts the tourism economy. In a survey of visitors on the Blue Ridge Parkway, smog-concealing views of the mountains was documented as a major turnoff that would keep visitors from returning.

In addition to air pollution, emissions from TVA’s dirty coal plants also harms creeks with mercury deposits and acid rain, according to the lawsuit.

Cooper has also filed a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency to force coal-fired power plants in 13 states, including Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama, where TVA operates plants to cut down on pollution they are contributing to North Carolina.

TVA’s 59 coal-fired power plants are currently exempt from federal emissions standards. If TVA expands or upgrades a plant, it is supposed to upgrade emissions controls at the same time. The Bush Administration has attempted to loosen this requirement, however, claiming it deters innovation. Instead, TVA would be allowed to ramp up production without coming into compliance with emissions standards.

Another federal initiative would allow emission credit swapping. A power plant could get credits for cleaning up their emissions and then sell those credits to other plants. TVA could then buy emission credits from a cleaner plant elsewhere and pollute even more.

Friedman cautioned that cleaning up TVA is only part of the solution to air pollution.

“TVA is a substantial part of the problem, especially in the western part of the state,” Friedman said.

Friedman said industries such as Blue Ridge Paper also contribute to the pollution problems, as do automobiles.

“Automobiles have gotten better over the years, but there are more automobiles and people are driving them longer distances, which is compensating for the improvements in technology,” Friedman said. “We do have to tackle that problem as well.”

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