Carrboro may sue EPA for non-response to UNC cogeneration plant

The UNC cogeneration plant on West Cameron Avenue has long been a source of frustration for members of the Carrboro community who want the facility near city lines to stop using coal. Recently, the local government took a step to try to increase recognition of the plant’s environmental impact: by declaring that it intended to sue the Environmental Protection Agency.

A cogeneration plant creates steam to generate its electricity, but this steam comes from the combustion of coal and natural gas. UNC pledged in 2010 to phase out coal from the campus’ predominant electricity provider by 2020. Failure to do so, however, has led to protests from community members and several groups advocating or lobbying for change.

The National Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity are among those involved in a case that sued UNC for violations of federal clean air law. While the district court ruled in favor of UNC last September, saying the two nonprofits lacked standing or evidence for their claims of harm, the judge acknowledged that the central cogeneration was emitting harmful pollutants.

The two groups also called for change at the state level, writing to the North Carolina Department of Air Quality and using pollutants as a reason to avoid renewing a permit for the UNC facility. .

Former Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle also sent a letter on behalf of the city and council to the State Department. Since the NCDAQ finally issued a new permit for the cogeneration plant, the city has joined with the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity to ask the EPA to intervene.

Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils told 97.9 The Hill that the city’s recent decision to threaten to sue the EPA is less dramatic than it looks. While the local government informed the federal agency of its plans, the mayor said it was more of a firm request for a requirement to be met.

“Really, what it’s about,” Seils said, “is that we’re asking the EPA to meet its legal obligation to respond to our petition. We filed a petition with these two partners in October. Federal law requires the EPA to respond within 60 days and they have not. We have therefore filed a notice of intent to sue, urging the EPA to meet its obligation under the law.

Seils said Carboro’s position was that the EPA opposes the state permit because the plant would still violate the Clean Air Act. Among the evidence presented in previous lawsuits was that the cogeneration facility exceeded the allowable heat input limit and created a pollution rate 269 times higher between 2019 and 2021. While the nonprofits lacked status and evidence of injury in their original lawsuit, the groups hope the EPA will see the UNC plant data and revoke the state permit.

Community members from Carrboro and Chapel Hill gathered at some point each week to protest the use of UNC’s cogeneration methods to power the campus, as seen here in December 2019. (Photo via Dakota Moyer.)

Ashley Ward is Senior Policy Associate for Engagement at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability. In a recent chat with 97.9 The Hill, she said measures like the one by the City of Carrboro underscore the need for widespread adherence to limiting environmental impact. While the U.S. government has taken high-profile action in recent years, she said greater commitments at all levels of our country are needed to address pollutants and emissions — which affect the rate of climate change.

“Government cannot do this alone,” Ward said. “This is going to require coordination between universities, private industry and government. The government’s job could be – as with the Cut Inflation Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill – to lower the barrier and incentivize private industry.

“I think everyone should appreciate what these ways [for those three sectors] are,” she continued, “and are really pushing these institutions down these paths.

Ward said she believes universities play an educational and research role when it comes to exploring environmental impact. As an institution with long-term planning and less political influence than for-profit industries, she said there are opportunities for these public agencies to be leaders of change.

“Universities are also very good at translating science, engineering and innovation and translating that into practice and policy,” Ward said. “[They are] doing it through engagement processes that bring a community perspective – that’s something we really don’t see as well outside of the academic setting.

Seils said, however, that it’s important to recognize that part of UNC’s reliance on its cogeneration plant stems from a lack of urgency on the part of the US government. State. Although he thinks a transition to cleaner energy sources would be a “win-win” for the university and the wider community, he said it was heavily affected by the decisions of lawmakers in the ‘State.

“I recognize that our partners in this petition recognize that, and we would ultimately like our state leaders to untie the hands of university leaders,” Seils said, “in order to achieve these goals regarding climate action and to move away from the use of coal”. to the factory – and ultimately to the use of renewable energy resources.

The notice of intent means the EPA will have another 60 days to contact the trio of parties about their petition. Otherwise, the City of Carboro will join a lawsuit against the EPA for lack of response.

To view the Letter of Intent, click here. To read the original petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Town of Carrboro, click here.

Photo via Carolina Planning Journal/North Carolina General Assembly. does not charge subscription fees, and you can directly support our local journalism efforts here. Want more of what you see on Chapelboro? Let us bring you free local news and community information by signing up to our bi-weekly newsletter.