COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The nation's largest power generator broke clean-air rules when it failed to cut emissions of smog-producing soot that causes health problems and fouls the environment, a Justice Department lawyer said yesterday.
The case against Columbus-based American Electric Power that got underway in federal court is the biggest of several filed against utilities in the Midwest and South during the waning days of the Clinton administration.
The government and eight states in the Northeast say AEP broke the law when it made major modifications to nine coal- burning plants without installing equipment that would have cut pollution drastically.
US District Judge Edmund Sargus Jr. is hearing the case without a jury. AEP could be forced to pay billions of dollars for pollution controls and millions in penalties if it violated the Clean Air Act.
AEP and other utilities facing similar suits contend that the work done on the plants was routine maintenance, not major modifications that trigger the requirement for new pollution controls.
The Bush administration in 2002 and 2003 rewrote Environmental Protection Agency rules that Clinton used to bring suits against aging coal-burning power plants. Those new rules have been placed on hold while federal courts review challenges to them.
Even so, Justice Department officials have continued during the Bush presidency to file lawsuits against coal-burning plants and negotiate settlements involving fines and new pollution controls.
AEP has more than 5 million customers in 11 states. The nine plants at issue are in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, and Virginia.
Eight other states are involved in the lawsuit because they contend that pollution from the plants drifted into their air. The states are Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey.