Green Business Bureau Blog
Kansas’ Largest Utility Settles Clean Air Lawsuit With $500 Million
Westar Energy today settled an air pollution lawsuit brought by the federal government by agreeing to spend at least $500 million on equipment to reduce emissions at the company’s Jeffrey Energy Center, a coal-fired power plant near St. Marys, Kansas.
In a complaint filed in February 2009, the government alleged that the Topeka-based utility modified all three units at the Jeffrey Energy Center to produce more electricity without installing required pollution control equipment or complying with emissions limits, in violation of the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review requirements.
The government discovered the violations through an information request submitted to Westar, the largest electric utility in Kansas.
“Today’s settlement sets the most stringent limit for sulfur dioxide emissions ever imposed on a coal-fired power plant in a federal settlement,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “EPA is committed to protecting clean air for communities by making sure coal-fired power plants comply with the law.”
The EPA estimates the cost of the injunctive relief required by this settlement at between $490 and $550 million through the end of 2016.
As part of the settlement, Westar has agreed to pay a $3 million civil penalty – $2.75 million to the United States and $250,000 to the state of Kansas. “We will not, however, seek to recover the $3 million charge from our customers,” said Larry Irick, Westar vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary.
In addition, the company has agreed to spend $6 million on environmental mitigation projects such as hybrid electric utility vehicle and electric transportation infrastructure, clean diesel vehicle conversions and small-scale renewable wind power.
Under the settlement, Westar will install and operate pollution control equipment at the Jeffrey Energy Center that is expected to reduce combined emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides by roughly 78,600 tons per year, which is 85 percent below 2007 emissions.
In addition, Westar will surrender surplus sulfur dioxide allowances. These allowances cannot be used again, which means that the emissions will be permanently removed from the environment. Westar will also rebuild and optimize controls to reduce particulate matter emissions.
“Long before the Department of Justice filed this lawsuit, we were already taking actions to keep our air clean,” said Bill Moore, Westar president and chief executive officer. “Today’s settlement is an extension of our environmental stewardship. We are committed to environmental protection while keeping in mind that consumers ultimately bear costs for cleaner air and newer, better technologies.”
“In the past few years, Westar has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars to improve the environmental performance of our coal plants,” Moore said. “The settlement calls for environmental investments and mitigation we would have eventually done anyway, and puts our dollars to work for the environment rather than being spent on expensive litigation.”
Under the settlement, Westar agrees to install a selective catalytic reduction system on one of the three Jeffrey Energy Center coal units by the end of 2014. This technology reduces emissions of nitrogen oxide into the air, similar to what a catalytic converter does on a vehicle.
A second selective catalytic reduction system would be installed on another Jeffrey coal unit by the end of 2016, if needed to meet nitrogen oxide reduction targets.
Already scheduled projects to install new low-nitrogen oxide burners and electrostatic precipitators will go forward as planned. Electrostatic precipitators remove emissions of fine particles, mostly of ash, created by burning coal.
In 2009, Westar completed a three-year project that cuts sulfur dioxide emissions at Jeffrey by over 95 percent, Moore said.
Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides can cause severe harm to human health and the environment, according to the EPA. After being emitted from power plants, they are converted to fine particles of particulate matter that can lodge deep in the lungs, causing a variety of health impacts including premature death.
Sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides also contribute to acid rain, smog, and haze. Air pollution from power plants can drift downwind and degrade air quality far from the source.
“This settlement will lower harmful sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by thousands of tons each year, and will benefit air quality in Kansas and downwind areas,” said Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously enforce violations of the Clean Air Act’s new source review provisions at coal-fired power plants and other sources of excess emissions across the country.”
Westar Energy generates and distributes electricity to more than 684,000 customers in Kansas. The company owns and operates three coal-fired electrical generating stations in the state. The settlement applies to all three units at the Jeffrey Energy Center, which comprise 2,160 megawatts, or 73 percent, of Westar’s coal-generating capacity.
The proposed settlement was lodged today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas and is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval.
Source: Environment News Service