Along the ring of dirty old coal–fired power plants around Pittsburgh, the Conemaugh generating plant in New Florence, Westmoreland County is one of the worst. On March 21 a Judge Robert Mitchell of the US District Court in Pittsburgh agreed, ruling that owner GenOn was liable for 8,684 violations of the Clean Water Act dating back to 2005. The plaintiffs in the case were PennEnvironment and the Sierra Club. The company’s potential legal exposure for these violations is nearly $300 million, based upon the court’s ability to assess penalties of up to $37,500 for each violation, and will be decided by the court June 1.
“GenOn’s long history of failure to comply with its pollution limits suggests that the quality of Pennsylvania’s rivers is worth less to the company than the profits it can take back to Houston,” said Thomas Au, water issues chair for the Pennsylvania Sierra Club. “It is a real victory when we can hold a company like this accountable for its actions.”
When filing the federal lawsuit against GenOn (then known as Reliant Energy) on April 10, 2007, the two environmental groups alleged that GenOn was in continuous violation of its Clean Water Act wastewater discharge permit, discharging more than three million gallons of wastewater per day that contained elevated levels of selenium, manganese, aluminum, boron, and iron into the Conemaugh River.
The limits in GenOn’s permit were set by the Pennsylvania DEP specifically to protect against degraded conditions in the river, and to help restore the river to health. In 2004, DEP agreed not to enforce the pollution limits at issue in this case until 2011. In the same side agreement with the company, DEP also reserved the right to extend this deadline, which it has already done once (until 2012). As the court ruled, however, that agreement does not prevent citizen groups from suing to enforce the federally required limits set forth in GenOn’s Clean Water Act permit.