ENVIRONMENT; GOVERNMENT; COMMUNITY
By Michelle Cassell
The latest attempt to mitigate toxic emissions coming from the University of North Carolina (UNC) cogeneration plant has come to an abrupt end with an order from Michael S. Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dated Nov. 8, 2022.
The Town of Carrboro, The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Sierra Club threatened to sue the EPA with a formal notice of intent on Sept. 13, 2022, for failing to respond to a petition the group had sent over a year ago. The petition asked the EPA to enforce the Clean Air Act and revise a North Carolina Division of Air Quality (NC DAQ) permit for the UNC cogeneration power plant.
The three groups claimed that “… allowing UNC to operate its polluting facilities in a manner that threatens to exceed National Ambient Air Quality Standard (‘NAAQS’) … exposes residents of Carrboro and Chapel Hill to a significant risk of disease and premature mortality.”
The answer from the EPA came within a few weeks of their 60-day deadline to respond. “Our claim against the EPA was ‘mooted’ once the EPA responded to our petition—meaning we can’t sue them about it anymore,” said Perrin de Jong, staff attorney at CBD, in an email interview with The Local Reporter (TLR).
An eighteen-page order issued on Nov. 8 from the EPA was the official and final response to their petition.
“It said, in so many words, you are wrong about everything, the North Carolina Division of Air Quality is right about everything, and there are no grounds for the EPA to object to that decision,” said de Jong.
The EPA’s response confirmed that the UNC facility impacted a significant population: “EPA conducted an analysis using EPA’s EJScreen to assess key demographic and environmental indicators within a five-kilometer radius of UNC-CH. This analysis showed a total population of approximately 71,997 residents within a five-kilometer radius of the facility, of which approximately 31 percent are people of color and 35 percent are low income.”
EJScreen is an environmental justice mapping and screening tool that provides EPA with a nationally consistent dataset and approach for combining environmental and demographic indicators.
“I am grateful for the agency’s [EPA’s] response to the petition, though I had hoped they would engage more on the merits rather than simply accepting the state’s position by default,” said Mayor Damon Seils of Carrboro.
Michael Regan, who came aboard as EPA administrator in March 2021, was previously appointed as the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality secretary in January 2017. According to Regan’s Wikipedia biography, he worked to develop the state’s Clean Energy Plan and to “advance North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.”
The campaign continues
According to DeJong, “The campaign continues with significant grassroots campaign mobilization continuing both on and off campus. Multiple organizations and community leaders continue to push for an end to the coal pollution at UNC.”
One such organization is the League of Conservation Voters. According to their website, the group’s mission is to “… influence policy, hold politicians accountable, and win elections. This is how we fight to build a world with clean air, clean water, public lands, and a safe climate that are protected by a just and equitable democracy.”
Amelia Covington has “volunteered to coordinate/facilitate the work of a constellation of local groups and activists,” according to de Jong. TLR has reached out to her for comment but has not heard back as of the time of this article.
In their order, the EPA pointed out that public citizens are encouraged to report violations of environmental laws:
“To the extent the Petitioners intended to argue that UNC-CH has violated or is violating the maintenance and operational requirements in the Permit, these arguments are not appropriate for a title V petition but may be addressed through other mechanisms, including administrative or civil enforcement action by EPA under section 113 of the CAA, enforcement by DAQ, or enforcement by citizens under section 304 of the CAA. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 7413, 7604. 28 EPA encourages the public to report possible violations of environmental laws and regulations at the following website: https://echo.epa.gov/report-environmental-violations.”
This article was updated Dec. 8, 2022, to clarify and more accurately characterize Amelia Covington’s role as a coordinator and facilitator for local groups and activists.
Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As assignment editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news.