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The Daily Tar Heel

Lawsuit against UNC claims coal plant could pose health risks to community


The UNC Cogeneration Facility stands in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2019. A recent lawsuit levied against UNC alleges the plant burns an excessive amount of coal at once and the University fails to monitor pollution control systems.

CORRECTION:  A previous version of the article misstated Kayla Woodley's year at UNC. The article has been updated to reflect the change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the change. 

2020 was supposed to be the year UNC stopped burning coal for good.

That’s what former chancellor Holden Thorp promised in 2010 before the plan was abandoned four years ago. The University’s Cogeneration Facility still burns coal regularly, and nearby residents are used to its blinking red light and white smoke on the western end of Cameron Avenue. 

A recent lawsuit brought against UNC says the plant is burning too much coal at a time and the University is failing to properly monitor pollution control systems. The lawsuit claimed this could pose risks to parts of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC’s campus. 

“When we found out that UNC was the last institution of higher learning in the state of North Carolina that still operates a coal-fired power plant, it was just very obvious that someone needed to pick the torch back up and bring the focus back (to coal use at the University),” said Perrin de Jong, North Carolina staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the suit against the University with the Sierra Club. 

UNC denies the allegations. In a letter addressed to de Jong and provided by the University, Vice Chancellor for Finance and Operations Jonathan Pruitt stated he strongly disagreed that multiple violations had taken place. 

“There have been a few, isolated instances of record-keeping discrepancies and other minor errors that have been reported as appropriate,” Pruitt wrote in the letter. 

The Center for Biological Diversity began looking into UNC’s use of coal two years ago, after de Jong read a 2017 Daily Tar Heel article that detailed the University’s intention to abandon the coal-free 2020 plan that Thorp had outlined.

A 2018 analysis by the Center found that the coal plant’s permit allowed it to emit four to six times the limits of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution permitted under the Clean Air Act.

“We all think of UNC-Chapel Hill as a leader in this state,” de Jong said. “... It's very disappointing to see UNC lagging so far behind everyone else in this state and just stubbornly clinging to this old, 19th-century dirty fuel.”

Sophomore sociology and environmental studies major Gabriela Duncan works with the North Carolina Reinvest Coalition, a group of UNC System students who advocate for the divestment of university endowment funds from fossil fuel-related investments. 

Duncan said it’s frustrating that UNC is still burning coal just a few blocks from campus.

“I just think it’s very hypocritical if you have all of these sustainability initiatives on campus, but if you look at the bigger picture, we’re still receiving a lot of money from fossil fuels, we’re still investing a lot by using coal for our energy,” Duncan said.

“That plant backs up onto the very back of our property”

The Cameron Avenue facility is located close to a number of off-campus rental properties, many occupied by UNC students.

Kayla Woodley, a senior exercise and sports science and Spanish major, was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma in middle school. Her symptoms were always relatively stable, she said, until she moved to South Merritt Mill Road this year. 

“It's actually almost at the back of my house" Woodley said, “That plant backs up onto the very back of our property.”

Now, she said her symptoms have worsened and she’s started a new medication. 

She can see the coal plant from the back of her house, but Woodley said she didn’t really think the worsened symptoms might be linked to the plant until she participated in an asthma study this fall. She was surprised to hear about the lawsuit, but is starting to think it may make sense given her experience living nearby.

Woodley said she's also surprised that the University relies as heavily as it does on unsustainable energy sources.  

“I certainly think that UNC can make a huge improvement with that because ... they have those kinds of resources to make those changes if they want," Woodley said. 

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De Jong said he and the Center for Biological Diversity have been in touch with multiple individuals who have reported negative respiratory health while living in or after moving to Chapel Hill. 

“Correlation is not the same as causation, and it’s very difficult to prove causation in a situation like that,” de Jong said. “But I’ve received many anecdotes.”

The plant is also located directly next to Pine Knolls, a historically Black community that was previously home to housing for University janitorial staff and one of Chapel Hill’s segregated high schools. 

“There’s a real environmental justice issue here,” de Jong said,  “Where you have much higher concentrations of low-income people, much higher concentrations of people of color living in proximity to the UNC coal plant.”

“Minor errors”

In a nine-page letter to de Jong dated Nov. 15, Vice Chancellor Pruitt said the operation of the cogeneration plant is critical to the operation of the University and UNC Hospitals. 

“The University carefully partners with the North Carolina Division of Air Quality to run an exemplary air quality program,” Pruitt wrote. “ … The University has studied, and continues to research ways to reduce and ultimately eliminate the use of coal while continuing to meet the rigorous levels of reliability required to sustain critical operations.”

Over the last 20 years, the University has cut coal use in half, Pruitt wrote.

De Jong said he thought Pruitt’s letter suggested that University records exist proving that the plant is operating in compliance with regulations. But the Center for Biological Diversity requested those records, he said, some of them multiple times, and never received them.

“Until we see the evidence that they are in compliance, which they still have not provided, we have to maintain our assumptions that they can't prove that they are in compliance,” de Jong said. 

Coal Free 2020

Several months ago, Elizabeth O’Nan invited a few people over to sit in her living room and talk about coal. 

That informal meeting became the Chapel Hill Organization for Clean Energy, a local chapter of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. The group participates in a weekly demonstration in front of the Cameron Avenue plant on Friday mornings.

O’Nan said she has long been disillusioned with UNC’s promises to switch to safer and more sustainable sources of energy. But if the allegations in the lawsuit were to be proven true, she said, it would be “outrageous.” 

“I mean, that puts a university on the level of a common criminal and a felon,” she said.

O’Nan said UNC has failed to take responsibility for its coal-burning plant in many ways. And the use of fossil fuels in any context, she said, inches the globe closer to a climate crisis. 

“(The switch to clean energy) is not just important for Chapel Hill and UNC,” O’Nan said. “We are having a climate crisis that calls for it. To do otherwise is unspeakable —  to allow this to continue, when there are very clearly things that could be done.”

Duncan, the student who works with the North Carolina Reinvest Coalition, shared similar feelings.

“I hope this serves as a wake-up call that (the University) really can’t brush everything under the rug,” Duncan said.

According to de Jong, this past summer the Cameron Avenue facility burned only natural gas. While it's still a fossil fuel, he said, natural gas alleviates carbon pollution and the risk of emitting other harmful pollutants. 

De Jong said that demonstrates the University’s ability to ultimately move away from coal as a fuel source.

After UNC conceded that it would not reach the goal of going coal-free by 2020, the University shifted its focus to becoming greenhouse-gas neutral by 2050, meaning a net zero carbon footprint by eliminating carbon dioxide emissions completely — or by balancing emissions with carbon removal.

But de Jong said 2050 could be far too late.

“It is completely irrelevant to the survival of this planet, the survival of this species, and the survival of every single species on the brink of extinction, whether or not UNC is carbon neutral in 2050 — when we have to completely turn the carbon curve upside down in the next handful of years to make a difference for the survival of the planet,” he said.