Power companies and EPA foiled by Sierra Club

On Thursday, May 6, Georgia Power got a slap on the wrists from a federal appeals court for its attempt to circumvent the Clean Air Act. The ruling, which did not directly involve Georgia Power but did name one of its business partners, will likely impact polluting power plants nationwide.

That's because for the first time, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that even partial owners of power plants have to comply with the Clean Air Act — and that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may have been remiss in failing to enforce the act to its fullest.

"We're really pleased with the 11th Circuit for reading the plain language of the Clean Air Act and making the EPA comply with the law," says Colleen Kiernan of the Georgia Sierra Club.

Here's how the court challenge went down: Two years ago, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the EPA and Oglethorpe Power Corp., an electric utility co-op that has long enjoyed a cozy partnership with Georgia Power.

The Sierra Club's complaint alleged violations of the Clean Air Act, which says companies that break clean air laws can't get permits for new plants until the company's other plants comply.

The trouble was, Georgia Power — which was found in violation of the Clean Air Act in 1999 for increasing power production at 10 power plants without upgrading pollution controls — wanted an operating permit for a new generator at Plant Wansley in Heard County.

Enter Oglethorpe Power.

Georgia Power transferred partial ownership of Plant Wansley to Oglethorpe Power, which was able in 2000 to receive an operating permit for the generator from the EPA.

So, the Sierra Club went after the EPA and Oglethorpe Power. And the court directed the EPA to go back and review Oglethorpe Power's permit.

Doug Fulle, Oglethorpe Power's director of environmental and regulatory affairs, says, "We're disappointed in the ruling, but we're confident the permit will be upheld by the EPA. The reality is, it doesn't make any sense to shut down this unit on an issue that is really between the Sierra Club and Georgia Power."

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