RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals court yesterday reversed a judge’s ruling requiring prompt installation of upgraded emission controls at three coal-fired power plants in Tennessee and one in Alabama.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned a decision by U.S. District Judge Lacy H. Thornburg of Asheville, N.C., who had declared the plants a “public nuisance” because of their effect on air quality in North Carolina’s scenic western mountains.
Thornburg had ordered the Tennessee Valley Authority to accelerate its planned emission control improvements at the four plants — a demand that TVA said would cost an additional $1 billion. But it was the ruling’s impact on utility regulation, not the cost, that prompted the appeals court to reverse the decision.
“If allowed to stand, the injunction would encourage courts to use vague public nuisance standards to scuttle the nation’s carefully created system for accommodating the need for energy production and the need for clean air,” appeals court Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote. “The result would be a balkanization of clean air regulations and a confused patchwork of standards, to the detriment of industry and the environment alike.”
Wilkinson also noted that while North Carolina attempted to frame the case in terms of protecting public health and the environment, those are issues that have been extensively addressed nationwide by the Clean Air Act for four decades.
“This decision recognizes TVA’s history of reducing emissions and the importance of the Clean Air Act in proper regulation of our plants,” TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said. “It also states that under the Clean Air Act, it is up to EPA and the states, not the courts, to decide what TVA’s power plant emissions should be.”
North Carolina can either seek a rehearing before the full appeals court or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This ruling is disappointing but the fight for clean air is far from over,” North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said. “I’m pleased that the TVA is cleaning up the four plants cited in the order and I trust this will continue during the appeals process.”
The TVA, the nation’s largest public utility, has about nine million consumers in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.