Government Takes Largest Suit over Power Plant Changes to Court
COLUMBUS, Ohio The nation's biggest power generator broke clean air rules by failing to cut emissions at plants in four states that foul the air in the Northeast and harm health, a federal lawyer argued Wednesday.
The case against Columbus-based American Electric Power is the biggest among several filed in the waning days of the Clinton administration against utilities in the Midwest and South.
The government and eight states say AEP broke the law when it made major modifications to nine coal-burning plants without installing equipment that would have cut pollution drastically.
The absence of the equipment means the plants continue to spew sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and soot that cause acid rain, smog and haze downwind from Ohio. The government says the pollutants lead to severe respiratory problems, including asthma and bronchitis.
"The plaintiffs expect to establish that AEP's conduct has resulted in environmental harm," government attorney Leslie Bellas said in opening statements.
AEP and the utilities have argued that work done on the plants was routine maintenance, which doesn't trigger the requirements for expensive pollution controls.
AEP might be required to pay billions of dollars for pollution controls and millions of dollars in penalties if the judge decides it violated the Clean Air Act.
The work done at the plants was common throughout the company and the industry, AEP lawyer Mike Miller said. He said such projects "do not necessarily translate into increased generation or emissions."
Bellas said the modifications extended the life expectancy of the plants built in the 1950s and '60s from 35 or 40 years to 50 or 60 years. The changes also enabled the plants to produce more electricity, which increased pollution, she said.
Judge Edmund Sargus ruled for the government in the first case to go to trial -- against an Ohio Edison plant. The company, owned by Akron-based FirstEnergy, later agreed to pay $1.1 billion for equipment to control emissions at its W.H. Sammis plant and three others and $33.5 million in fines and environmental initiatives.
A ruling in a similar case in Virginia gave a victory to a utility company last month. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Duke Energy Corp. did not need the EPA's permission for improvements made between 1988 and 2000 at eight of its plants.
The Bush administration has rewritten the EPA regulations that Clinton used to sue the utilities. Those new regulations have been placed on hold while federal courts review challenges to them.
The government has settled nine cases against power generators that it says will reduce emissions by 940,000 tons a year through the installation of $5.5 billion worth of pollution controls.
The states suing AEP are New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maryland.
AEP has more than 5 million customers in 11 states. Its nine plants on trial are in Ohio, Indiana, Virginia and West Virginia.
Source: Associated Press