Italian Judge Orders Shutdown Of Coal Plant Following Deaths And Disease

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andy Wong, File

In this Dec. 3, 2009 file photo smoke billows from a chimney of the cooling towers of a coal-fired power plant in Dadong, Shanxi province, China.

Two coal-fired units at a large power plant in northern Italy must cease operation because of widespread death and disease that has afflicted the surrounding population, an Italian judge ordered Tuesday.

Tirreno Power’s Vado Ligure plant in the northern district of Savona was responsible for 400 human deaths between 2000 and 2007, and more than 2,000 of cases of heart and lung disease between 2005 and 2012, judge Florence Giorgi ruled. Judge Giorgi granted Savona’s chief prosecutor Francantonio Granero’s motion to shut down Vado Ligure’s two 330 megawatt coal-fired units, while letting the company continue to operate its 800 megawatt combined-cycle unit powered by natural gas.

Granero may also seek charges of environmental disaster and manslaughter against the company, the Italian news agency ANSA reports.

The case against Tirreno was based on a study of the cause of high disease in the area surrounding the plant — a study which Tirreno has called “biased.” The study did not make clear just how human exposure to toxic emissions was determined, the company said, making it scientifically vague.

“We do not understand the rational for this decision,” a Tirreno Power spokesperson told Reuters.

While those afflicted by pollution from Tirreno’s plant will likely breathe a clean sigh of relief from the Italian court’s decision, those who think they are in a similar situation in the United States are unlikely to see similar results in American courts. Shannon Fisk, managing attorney for environmental law firm Earthjustice’s coal program, told ThinkProgress on Thursday that he has never seen a case where a judge has ordered a coal plant shut down due to public health concerns — and likely never will.

“Normally the litigation would be over whether environmental laws were complied with,” Fisk said. “Then there would be an order from the court to require the law to be complied with. But I’ve never seen a court order a plant shut down for public health impacts.”

Clean air regulations in the United States are supposed to make it so coal plants do not emit levels of toxic pollution that would cause such widespread death and disease. When plant operators don’t meet those standards, they are sued — but the regulations are not written to say that the result of a conviction is that the company must shut down its plant. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that an American judge could not do it anyway, Fisk noted.

“As a complete hypothetical, I’m sure a court has equitable discretion to craft his or her order in whatever he or she sees fit,” he said. “If a judge were to determine there was such a blatant violation that shutdown was the only feasible option, then hypothetically [a shutdown] could be in the courts discretion. But I think it would require quite a showing.”

But court orders may not be necessary to shut down coal plants if they are in fact causing death and disease, Fisk noted.

“With how things are going, coal economically is just not competitive with other sources of power,” he said. “The broader picture is that coal is something that we should be transitioning away from as rapidly as we can.”