ATLANTA -- Two coal-fired electric plants owned by Southern Co. and operated by its subsidiary, Georgia Power Co., are being hauled into federal court, charged with making repairs without proper pollution controls.
Lawsuits filed by the Justice Department on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta and four other cities in the Southeast and Midwest accuse Georgia Power's Plant Scherer, located in Monroe County near Macon, Plant Bowen, near Cartersville in Bartow County, and 15 other plants of making major modifications without installing equipment required to control smog, acid rain and soot.
The EPA also issued a notice of violation to Chatham County's Plant Kraft, operated by Savannah Electric, and seven other coal-fired plants containing similar charges, while slapping seven plants run by the Tennessee Valley Authority with an administrative order.
"When children have trouble breathing because of pollution from a utility plant hundreds of miles away, something must be done," U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said. "Today's actions will help clean the air and make us breathe a little easier."
South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., which operates the aging, coal-fired Urquhart Steam Generating Plant in Beech Island, is not involved in the lawsuit.
Although that facility -- built in 1953 -- is a major emitter of ozone-causing nitrogen oxides, SCE&G is planning a $180 million renovation and expansion that will eliminate most of the emissions within three years.
When Congress amended the Clean Air Act in the late 1970s, it exempted existing coal-fired plants from tougher restrictions on air emissions, based on the belief that newer, cleaner technologies soon would replace those facilities. The "grandfathering" of the older plants would be allowed, however, only as long as they didn't undertake major modifications.
The lawsuits charge that the utilities have gone beyond the routine maintenance permitted by the law, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to extend the lives of the plants and avoid the cost of building new facilities, without installing the pollution controls required by the law.
"Congress made a deal with these utilities," said John Coequyt, an analyst with the Washington-based Environmental Working Group. "They said, `If these plants are so profitable that you want to modify them to increase capacity, you should modify them to produce less air pollution."'
But Georgia Power spokesman Tal Wright said the modifications his company is accused of making at the plants were, in fact, repairs, replacements and maintenance necessary to provide "safe, reliable and efficient" electricity for customers.
He likened Wednesday's legal action to a proposal floated by the EPA last year to tighten the definition of "modification" in a way that would make routine work on older plants more likely to require the same pollution control technology demanded of new plants.
"EPA officials ... are attempting to override Congress and, in essence, force utilities to choose between spending hundreds of millions of dollars on additional controls or simply abandon plants that burn coal to produce electricity," Mr. Wright said.
Mr. Coequyt said the 32 plants targeted by the EPA on Wednesday increased their electric generating capacity between 1992 and last year enough to yield nitrogen-oxide emissions equivalent to 6.8 million cars. Nitrogen oxide is a key component of smog.
"We're talking about a lot of pollution here," he said. "This is a significant environmental victory."
Southern Co. and the other utilities could face civil penalties of up to $25,000 for each day of violation at each plant prior to Jan. 30, 1997, and $27,500 for each day thereafter.
Other companies named in the suits include American Electric Power, Cinergy, FirstEnergy, Illinois Power, Southern Indiana Gas & Electric Co., Tampa Electric Co. and their subsidiaries. Plants in Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia also are affected.
Staff writer Robert Pavey contributed to this article
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