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Sierra Club Takes Coal Fight to Supreme Court

Andrew Burger headshotWords by Andrew Burger
Leadership & Transparency

The Sierra Club's “Beyond Coal” campaign recently scored a big victory in Indiana. The Indiana chapter of Beyond Coal was a central player in putting together the coalition of grassroots groups that managed to prod Indiana Power & Light to stop burning coal at its Harding Street power plant -- the only coal-fired power plant remaining within the limits of a major Midwestern city. The campaign isn't stopping there.

On Sept. 26, the Sierra Club announced it was joining with Ratepayer and Community Intervenors to file a lawsuit in the New York Supreme Court that challenges a Public Service Commission ruling that would levy a $140 million subsidy on state residents' electricity bills to upgrade and expand the Dunkirk coal-fired power plant in Chautauqua County. The plaintiffs are being represented by Earthjustice.

Deeming it a “bailout” at ratepayers' expense, the upgrade and expansion plan “would result in a plant three times larger than necessary to maintain reliable operation of the region's power grid,” Sierra states in a news release. Moreover, at a time when the EPA is readying President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, the plant – though it would be able to burn both coal and natural gas – would add greenhouse gases and air pollution in the region, contributing to climate change, the environmental NGO highlights.

Repowering Dunkirk

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the agreement to repower the Dunkirk power plant so it can burn both coal and natural gas in December. As per the agreement's terms, National Grid and NRG Energy subsidiary Dunkirk Power LLC “will refuel three coal units at the facility to add the capability to generate 435 megawatts using natural gas,” NGI's Daily Gas Price Index reported.

Currently, just one 75 MW unit at the Dunkirk plant in Chautauqua County is operating on coal. The New York Public Service Commission's approval of the $140 million plan will assure plant operations for 10 years “with added capability to generate 435 MW of electrical power by burning natural gas ... The refueling allows NRG to switch to natural gas and provide critical local system reliability benefits for National Grid customers,” the commission stated.

Commenting on the plan's approval, Public Service Commission (PSC) Chair Audrey Zibelman said:

"The agreement will result in a cleaner power plant at Dunkirk that will meet reliability needs, reduce costs for consumers, create jobs and stabilize the local property tax base. Repowering Dunkirk will produce significant benefits in terms of enhanced system reliability, congestion relief, and emissions reductions. Our decision to allow National Grid to recover the costs of its agreement with Dunkirk is in the public interest and it meets our obligation to ensure safe and adequate service. Further, it will help spur economic growth and opportunity.”

NY Supreme Court challenge

Besides challenging PSC's approval, utility and PSC watchdogs are concerned that the unnecessarily large upgrade and expansion plan “could start a cascade of similarly expensive proposals from other coal plants” in New York state that are facing economic challenges. 

Gov. Cuomo got the PSC to consider and approve the plan. In 2012, NRG Energy requested authorization from the PSC to shutter the facility because it was no longer economic to operate. It was granted a Reliability Support Services Agreement (RSSA) – a temporary, ratepayer-funded subsidy – to operate Dunkirk through June 1, 2015, according to NGI's Natural Gas Price Index report.

Gov. Cuomo then urged the PSC “to approve additional ratepayer subsidies to reopen the other three units and allow them to burn both coal and gas,” Sierra Club recounts. This despite National Grid having shown that “a much smaller fix would solve the issue."

“The PSC,” Sierra continues, “under direction from the governor, improperly accepted the expensive, oversized plan. They failed to stand up for the families and businesses that will be forced to foot the bill for a dirty energy plant that's much larger than necessary.”

The governor's part in getting PSC to consider and approve the plan stands out in contrast to his efforts in promoting adoption of renewable energy in New York and making the state a hub for solar and renewable energy science, technology and business.

"We can’t afford more dangerous fossil fuel pollution or the higher bills that come with it. We need Governor Cuomo to support our communities and workers in a responsible transition away from coal and gas and toward truly renewable energy sources,” said Carol Chock, legislator from Tompkins County and president of Ratepayer and Community Intervenors.

Added Lisa Dix, senior New York representative for Sierra Club Beyond Coal: “It’s not fair to make our families pay for more dirty fuels when there are better solutions available. Governor Cuomo should be helping communities and workers in the transition away from coal, not allowing companies to continue burning coal indefinitely at the expense of our families’ health.”

Beyond Coal's mobile smog alert text service

Sierra Club's Beyond Coal is a nationwide campaign. On Sept. 18, Beyond Coal launched a mobile phone text-alert service that notifies subscribers when air pollution reaches dangerous levels within a 50-mile radius.” 

Available in Spanish and English, the “Mobile Air Alerts” service “was created to give communities the most up-to-date information for lung health based on the recommendations of scientists and healthcare professionals.”

In explaining why it launched the mobile text-alert service, Beyond Coal pointed out that the EPA has concluded that current “safe” levels of smog pollution “are actually not strong enough to protect our communities, our kids and the air we breathe.”

So-called “moderate” air days are in fact “bad” air days, according to Sierra's Beyond Coal. Days when air quality is rated “bad” means breathing air is unsafe.

Coal-fired power plants are one of the biggest contributors to smog pollution in the U.S., “contributing to the 40 percent of Americans living in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution,” Beyond Coal notes. “Doctors liken inhaling smog to getting sunburn on your lungs, exacerbating conditions like bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. Ongoing problmes with these illnesses can lead to permanent lung damage and even premature death.”

Commenting on the launch of the smog text-alert service, Beyond Coal Campaign Director Mary Anne Hitt said:

“We hope that this new text-alert system will not only help families stay informed, but will also raise general awareness about the hazards of ground-level smog caused by coal-fired power plants, which sends thousands to the emergency room each year and is an economic drain on communities.”

*Images credit: 1) NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation; 2) Sierra Club; 3) American Lung Association

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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