Sierra Club Sues Energy Future Holdings, Accuses it of Thousands of Clean Air Violations

Sierra Club on Tuesday sued Dallas-based Energy Future Holdings, the state's largest unregulated generator of electricity, accusing the company's Big Brown coal-fired plant near Fairfield of thousands of violations of Clean Air Act standards.

The environmental group gave the company an ultimatum last fall when it discovered a litany of alleged violations and no planned enforcement by state regulators. The message: Clean up or go to court. The suit, filed in a Waco federal court, was brought on behalf of the Sierra Club by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit seeking effective enforcement of environmental law.

Energy Future Holdings, for its part, says the claims are false. "Luminant stands by its strong track record of exemplary compliance in meeting or outperforming all environmental laws, rules and regulations. These appear to be unfounded accusations from a group that has made these same claims before," spokesman Allan Koenig wrote in an emailed statement.

Pollutants from Big Brown, a 1,150-megawatt plant, the group says, harm air quality in the Dallas area. Power plant emissions are measured in a few ways. One is opacity, which is basically the scientific term for how clearly you can see through billowing plumes of soot issuing from the smokestacks. Within the soot is a pollutant known as fine particulate matter -- a byproduct of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, capable of traveling hundreds of miles on the wind and wreaking havoc on aging or impaired pulmonary systems.

Big Brown's permit says the limit is 30 percent opacity for no more than six minutes. Sierra Club claims it violated this standard 6,250 times between July 2007 and December 2010. During the fourth quarter of 2010, Big Brown exceeded 90 percent opacity a fifth of the time, and 75 percent opacity nearly half of the time, the complaint alleges.

Another way to measure power-plant pollution is to measure the particulate matter itself. According to Sierra Club, Big Brown exceed its limit 370 times between January 2008 and July 2011. The environmental group is asking the court for between $32,000 and $37,000 per violation, per day. The sum could be gargantuan.

"Those are set in the regulations and they're the maximum penalty the court could award per day for each violation," said Erin Fonkin, an EIP attorney.

It's unlikely they'll get that amount from a company devoting more than half of its revenues to pay the interest on debt accrued from the $46 billion leveraged buyout of the former TXU by KKR and Goldman Sachs. Its first-quarterly results, released Tuesday, report a $304 million net loss, likely due in no small part to an unseasonably mild winter.

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Brantley Hargrove