CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Duke Energy Corp. received the final OK from state environmental regulators Jan. 29 to build a coal-fired power generator in western North Carolina.
But environmental groups say the battle is far from over, threatening possible legal action to stop the $2.4 billion project.
“We’re going to turn North Carolina into a national battleground. Everyone realizes how serious our climate crisis is, and we cannot afford to stop fighting that power plant. This is a moral issue,” said Jim Warren, executive director of N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, an environmental group fighting the plant.
The Charlotte-based utility was given its final air permit to build an 800-megawatt unit, and company officials said they plan to begin construction immediately.
Construction is expected to take four years, and officials said it will create 1,600 new jobs with a total payroll of about $100 million.
Duke said the permit imposes emissions standards stricter than federal or state requirements for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, and mercury standards tougher than federal limits.
The company said it also includes several provisions that would reduce greenhouse gases — a leading cause of global warming.
Duke promised to make the new unit “carbon neutral” by 2018. That means Duke will try to find a way to offset the projected 5.5 million tons (5 million t) of carbon dioxide produced annually at the new unit, but Duke faces no penalties if that goal isn’t met. Duke plants now discharge about 40 million tons (36 million t) of carbon dioxide a year in North Carolina and South Carolina.
“It will be one of the cleanest and most efficient coal plants in the nation,” James L. Turner, Duke Energy president and chief operating officer, said during a conference call.
The company also agreed to retire 800 megawatts generated by older coal-fired plants by the same year. To replace that power, the company will depend on the new unit, lean more on nuclear power and continue to promote energy conservation programs. Duke, which operates seven nuclear reactors in the Carolinas, wants to build a new nuclear one to help meet its expanding customer base. The company adds up to 60,000 new customers a year.
Duke officials said there were no penalties for failing to reach goals in the air permit, but added the N.C. Utilities Commission could take action if the utility falls short.
Said Turner: “We can meet those goals.”
The permit issued by the N.C. Division of Air Quality was the latest development in the company’s plans to build a new unit at its Cliffside plant, about 50 mi. west of Charlotte.
Duke is shutting down four smaller coal-burning units, all built in the 1940s, as part of the upgrade at Cliffside. The company originally sought a permit for two 800-megawatt coal-fire units, but won permission from the North Carolina Utilities Commission to build only one generator at the site. Last year, the air quality granted Duke a draft permit.
Division of Air Quality Director Keith Overcash praised the permit, saying Cliffside will “be producing substantially more power while cutting back its emissions of key pollutants.”
Several environmental groups have strongly opposed the project, with many accusing Duke Energy of not fully considering the use of conservation efforts and renewable fuels, such as solar and wind power.
One group said the generator will “increase hazy skies, worsen acid rain, and deposit large amounts of toxic mercury” in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country’s most-visited national park.
“While permit improvements have been made that could lessen impact on the Smokies, no one can know for sure because the state has excused Duke from fully analyzing the fate of its pollution,” said Stephanie Kodish, an attorney of the Coal Litigation Program National Parks Conservation Association.
Gudrun Thompson, staff lawyer of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said her group was taking a hard look at this permit and evaluating its legal options.
She said opponents have 60 days to appeal the permit, adding they could challenge the case by filing a petition with the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings.
“We’re encouraged by some improvements in the permit, but there are some serious flaws,” she said.
She said the state hasn’t forced Duke to use the cleanest technology available — and the fallout from the mercury alone could impact the region’s rivers and streams.
Opposition from environmental groups — and rising costs — have forced the cancellation of nearly 50 new coal plants nationwide.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Marilyn Lineberger said the company would fight any lawsuit and was moving ahead with the project.
“We’ll vigorously defend the air permit if challenged.”
Associated Press business writer Ieva M. Augstums contributed to this report.