Whenever talk turns to air pollution and impacts on national parks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the first parks mentioned. A coalition of conservation groups went to court today with hopes of preventing the park's pollution problems from growing.
At stake is to what extent Duke Energy must control emissions from its Cliffside coal-fired power plant in western North Carolina. The energy company is working on an 800-megawatt addition to that plant, but the conservation groups want that project halted "because their air permit does not adequately control dangerous air emissions, including mercury and dozens of carcinogens such as arsenic, chromium, and dioxin."
Handling the lawsuit for the National Parks Conservation Association, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy are the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Natural Resource Defense Council.
"All we are asking is for Duke Energy to ensure that the people in North Carolina have the same health protection as folks in the rest of the country," says Patrice Simms, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Duke is continuing to build its conventional pulverized coal plant in violation of the clear requirements of the Clean Air Act. It is not only illegal, but it puts the people of North Carolina at risk of exposure to dangerous air toxics. Construction must be stopped until Duke conforms to the rule of law."
The groups asked the federal court to instruct Duke Energy of its obligation to adequately control air pollution and stop construction until such controls are embedded in its air permit. A recent federal court decision made clear that coal-fired power plants are subject to the federal Clean Air Act’s most stringent air pollution controls. Duke Energy, however, began construction on the Cliffside expansion only 10 days before the decision was issued.
“Construction of the new Cliffside facility under its current air permit commits North Carolinians to pollution from outdated, dirty coal technology for the next 50 years,” states Ulla Reeves, regional program director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Building a coal plant with today’s knowledge of global warming and the threats of mercury is simply irresponsible.”
Intended to protect public health, air quality, and national parks, the Clean Air Act requires that new coal-fired power plants use the most stringent pollution controls for reducing 66 of the most highly toxic emissions, including mercury and lead, which can cause serious and irreversible adverse effects to people’s health, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, and neurological impairment.
Duke Energy officials maintain that under their permit from the state of North Carolina they are required to use best available technology to control pollution from the $2.4 billion unit.
“We want to replace older coal units with this new unit and then retire those old units that don't have state-of-the-art emissions controls,” a Duke Energy spokeswoman told the Citizen-Times of Asheville, North Carolina. “That's why any delay is bad for our customers and bad for the environment.”
North Carolina air quality officials also are reviewing Duke Energy's emissions control plans and say that that could lead to some more stringent requirements.
The conservation groups are not convinced, however, that the energy company will minimize pollutants as much as possible.
“Ultimately, it is the neighbors of Cliffside, their children and grandchildren, and economic resources like Great Smoky Mountains National Park that will suffer the effects of this coal plant’s air pollution,” said Stephanie Kodish, clean air counsel with the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. “North Carolinians and national park visitors want to breathe clean air; the laws in place to ensure our air is clean shouldn’t be ignored.”
Already one of the nation’s most polluted national parks, Great Smoky is expected to be greatly affected by pollution from Cliffside, which will harm the park’s air and water quality and affect wildlife, including several endangered species, according to the conservationists.