Agreement allows Roxboro residents to breathe cleaner air

Farmland in rural North Carolina (© Emily Richardson-Lorrente)

People in Roxboro, North Carolina will breathe cleaner air after a highly polluting power plant shuts down by March 2021 thanks to a recently finalized state consent order. The agreement was prompted by advocacy from SELC, Sierra Club and Clean Air Carolina. The plant, owned by CPI USA, burns coal, shredded tires, and creosote-soaked railroad ties and other wood to generate electricity.

Under the order, signed by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and CPI USA, the plant must meet a stricter limit for harmful sulfur dioxide emissions until it closes. Scientific research links poor air quality with many serious health conditions, including asthma, cancer, and even an increased the risk of death from COVID-19. 

“CPI’s uncontrolled air pollution is coming to an end at long last. After more than a decade of unlawful toxic emissions, families in Roxboro will finally get to breathe cleaner air,” said Leslie Griffith, an SELC attorney. “We’re glad DEQ recognized that CPI’s air pollution cannot continue.”

Located on the northern edge of Roxboro, near a community where most families are people of color, CPI Roxboro emits as much sulfur dioxide as a much larger coal-fired power plant. Along with Duke Energy’s nearby Mayo and Roxboro coal power plants, it is one of the largest air polluters in Person County. 

“It’s long past time to retire this dirty, aging power plant,” said Will Harlan, Sierra Club senior campaign representative for the Beyond Coal campaign. “This consent order provides finality and protection to the community.”

The consent order puts an end to more than a decade of unlawful pollution from CPI. The company avoided appropriate Clean Air Act permitting for a 2008 retrofit that let it burn more tire waste, significantly increasing the plant’s sulfur dioxide pollution. The facility did not even begin monitoring its pollution until 2015, years after the project was completed. 

When the monitoring revealed how drastically the retrofit had increased the plant’s emissions, CPI claimed that the emissions increases were unrelated to the retrofit and therefore did not trigger more stringent pollution limits. In July 2019, DEQ initially proposed a permit that would have accepted the company’s claim and let the plant continue avoiding sulfur dioxide controls required by the Clean Air Act. But SELC and our partners pointed to DEQ’s own documents showing that, without the retrofit, CPI Roxboro would likely have shut down, meaning the increased emissions resulted directly from the retrofit and could not evade the required pollution controls.

After reviewing comments from the conservation groups and EPA, the agency began an enforcement action against CPI that culminated in the consent order.

“This is an environmental justice victory that protects the community, one of many North Carolina communities near polluting facilities. This order will improve air quality and reduce health risks for Roxboro families,” said June Blotnick, Clean Air Carolina Executive Director.

Under the order, CPI must permanently shut down the plant by March 31, 2021. Until then, it must also meet a strengthened sulfur dioxide emission limit that requires it to operate control technology that it has long avoided using. The company will also pay a $389,000 penalty.

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