By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
An Oklahoma City-based utility that operates two coal-fired power plants in the state — one in Muskogee County — is being sued for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.
The lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Justice Department, alleges Oklahoma Gas & Electric increased the output of its coal-fired units without installing effective pollution controls.
Justice officials allege the company’s assessments fell short of the pre-project emissions analysis required by federal law. They also allege the company’s “proposed plan of action for compliance” is “insufficient as a matter of law.”
The Clean Air Act requires owners of “regulated facilities to anticipate future emissions increases” resulting from physical changes in order “to prevent the increased emission of harmful air pollution.” Those assessments are required to be completed “before construction on a proposed project is undertaken.”
Justice officials, who filed the civil action Monday in the U.S. District Court of Western Oklahoma, allege “OG&E performed numerous projects at its Muskogee and Sooner facilities without properly assessing the impact those projects would have on ... future emissions.” The renovations at issue took place between 2003 and 2006 at the company’s power plants in Muskogee and Noble counties.
Brian Alford, an OG&E spokesman, said the company denies the allegations in the complaint, which was filed on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Alford said all applicable procedures were followed and documentation was filed with state environmental regulators.
“First and foremost, we believe that we are in compliance with all state and federal requirements, and we intend to vigorously defend our position,” Alford said.
“We followed procedures, and actual monitored data indicate that emissions did not increase as a result of the work performed.”
Alford said OG&E provided the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Control with information about the eight projects at issue before construction began.
That information included the company’s projection there would be “no emissions increases resulting from the work to be performed” and a commitment “to monitor and submit emissions data annually to verify its projections.”
The federal complaint contradicts the company’s accounts, as it alleges OG&E failed to seek the requisite permits.
Justice Department lawyers also allege the emissions analysis submitted by OG&E lacked the specificity required by the act.
“OG&E has relied on this approach to evade the requisite pre-construction ... project analysis and applicability determination,” the complaint states.
“As such, there exists an immediate and substantial controversy between the United States and OG&E with regard to the interpretation and proper application of the Clean Air Act and associated implementing regulations.”
Clean-air advocates who have launched initiatives aimed at ending the use of coal as a fuel source for the generation of electricity lauded Monday’s development.
Whitney Pearson, a field organizer for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, described the lawsuit as “a sad reminder that if OG&E had put on controls when they were supposed to years ago, Oklahomans would be breathing cleaner air.”
“There is no longer any excuse for OG&E to hide from their responsibility,” Pearson said. “It’s time they retire their old, dirty coal plants and begin investing in smart 21st- century energy solutions.”
OG&E’s coal-fired plants have been the target of ongoing scrutiny. The company’s decision to challenge a federal regional haze rule drew criticism from some camps. And the Sierra Club’s Oklahoma chapter released a report in June that shows sulfur dioxide emissions from OG&E’s coal-fired generation plants “are causing violations” of national ambient air quality standards.
The goal of the regional haze rule is to reduce emissions of fine particulates, which limit visibility in national parks, and sulfur dioxide, which can harm public health.
The EPA adopted the final rule in December 2011 after determining plans submitted in 2007 and 2010 by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality failed to meet certain criteria.
The federal rule incorporates core parts of the state’s plan dealing with aesthetics, but it imposes stricter standards for sulfur dioxide emissions for three of Oklahoma’s oldest coal-fired plants.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt also is challenging the regional haze rule on behalf of the state and an unincorporated association of businesses trying to keep energy costs reasonably low.
Alford said critics should take note that the complaint filed Monday is void of any allegations “that OG&E exceeded allowable emissions as a result of the work that was done” at the two power plants.
OG&E also was recognized in June by the U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory for its promotion of green power. The Top 10 ranking was based upon total sales of renewable energy and customer participation, among other factors.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.