The Justice Department, acting on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), last week expanded lawsuits against a half dozen utilities accused of making illegal improvements at coal-burning power plants without installing required pollution control equipment.
The announcement came a day after the Tampa Electric Co., one of the utilities in the original lawsuits in November 1999, reached a settlement with EPA that included a $3.5 million fine.
"Dirty air effects all of us, and this Administration is committed to pursuing companies that are to blame," said Attorney General Janet Reno. "The actions of these companies comprised our health and degraded our environment."
In this latest action, the Justice Department added 12 plants to the lawsuits that were filed against seven utility companies in November.
Eight of those plants previously had been marked for administrative enforcement actions by EPA and four others had not previously been cited.
The utilities have denied violating any laws and argue that the changes made at the plants consisted of needed and legal maintenance.
The new power plants being targeted include five American Electric Power facilities in Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia; two Cinergy plants in Indiana; and five plants in Georgia, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama operated by Southern Co. affiliates.
The United States alleges that these power plants illegally released massive amounts of air pollutants for years, contributing to some of the most severe environmental problems facing the nation today.
The plants, according to the Justice Department, operated without the best available emission-control technology, increasing air pollution near the facilities and far downwind of the plants, along the Eastern Seaboard.
EPA claims the utilities made technical changes and improvement in the plants that allowed them to produce more electricity in violation of the 1990 Clean Air Act without installing the required emission controls.
The 1990 law "grandfathered" the plants form having to install the more sophisticated pollution controls, but in return the utilities were not to make improvements that would increase the plants' longevity or expand their production power.
The government lawsuit said the utilities violated those restrictions.
As a result, Justice Department is seeking significant penalties from all the utilities.
The Clean Air Act authorizes civil penalties of up to $25,000 for each day of violation at each power plant prior to Jan. 30, 1997, and $27,500 for each day thereafter.