Tar Heel Tattler - January 2007

Duke case leaves it out in the coal
By Maggie Frank

It’s not that Duke Energy Corp. would rather fight than switch when it comes to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules. The Charlotte-based utility is switching — spending nearly $1.8 billion to install emissions-cleaning scrubbers on its largest coal-fired plants — but also fighting an emissions-related lawsuit filed by EPA in 2000.

Duke has won twice in federal court, but companies with similar cases have lost. EPA didn’t appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but environmental groups that joined the suit pressed on. The high court heard arguments in November and should decide by June.

Duke’s opponents say the utility made changes that allowed it to run coal-fired plants more often and boost annual pollution levels impermissibly high. Duke argues that the emissions should be measured on an hourly, not annual, basis and that EPA changed its standards after the utility had begun work on the plants. Opponents say Duke merely ignored the standards all along.

Though it is installing scrubbers at its largest coal-fired plants to comply with the 2002 North Carolina Smokestacks Act, as well as with EPA regulations passed in 2006, Duke doesn’t want to do that in all of its coal-powered plants, as the environmentalists want, because it wouldn’t be cost-effective. But Duke does plan to run its “unscrubbed” plants more hours.

“We need to know what we need to do to maintain our plants,” Duke spokesman Tom Williams says. “If we win this case, the routine work we do in the future — the boiler work we do, the large turbine overhauls we do every four to six years — won’t be second-guessed.”

Unlike Duke, Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Resources Inc., settled quickly with EPA, mainly because it figured it would have to install scrubbers sooner or later, says David Heacock, senior vice president. “It makes sense just to go ahead and install the controls and not pay the legal fees.”

Even so, Dominion and other power companies are watching Duke’s case closely, he says. “We would like to have the rules clarified once and for all so we know what they are.” And if someone else is paying, so much the better.