Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) is scheduled to hold an event at her state’s biggest coal-fired power plant on Monday, in a move designed to highlight her opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposed limits on carbon pollution from coal plants.
Problem is, the coal plant she’s highlighting — the Big Cajun 2 power plant in New Roads, La. — is one of the nation’s dirtiest, most known for being the subject a high-profile U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit over its toxic emissions. What’s more, the CEO of the company that owns the plant recently said he believes that EPA should be regulating carbon pollution from coal plants, perplexing some as to why she chose to put a spotlight on that plant.
“It’s really weird that she would choose one of the largest polluters in the nation to highlight her opposition to these protections,” said, Jenna Garland, deputy press secretary at the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “Based on the CEO’s public statements, I’m not too sure he’s going to be happy about this.”
In an interview with Fast Company last week, NRG Energy CEO David Crane said he wasn’t thrilled about the regulations — but only because they didn’t include other carbon-polluting forms of energy as well. “The EPA should be regulating coal plants from a carbon perspective,” Crane said. A spokesperson from NRG Energy, which owns Big Cajun, did not immediately return ThinkProgress’ request for comment.
The 1489-megawatt plant is also one of the nation’s dirtiest, according to an Environment America report. Out of more than 600 plants in the U.S., Big Cajun 2 is currently the 20th-largest carbon polluter, the report said. The plant emitted 13.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2011 — the same as the emissions from 2.75 million cars, the report said.
Emissions from the Big Cajun 2 have also caused myriad health problems in the communities that surround it. A study commissioned by the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force estimated that fine particle pollution from the Big Cajun 2 plant in 2012 caused 23 deaths, 32 heart attacks, 410 asthma attacks, and 14 cases of chronic bronchitis — health impacts monetized at about $180 million.
Health problems and emissions have likely decreased since 2011, if only because of a $250 million settlement agreement NRG entered into with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012. That settlement ended the DOJ’s 2009 lawsuit accusing Big Cajun 2 of pumping large amounts of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides(NOx) — two powerful greenhouse gases — into the atmosphere in violation of the Clean Air Act. At the time of the settlement, the assistant attorney general for DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division called Big Cajun 2 “the largest source of illegal air pollution in Louisiana.”
In addition to paying $250 million to install pollution control equipment, NRG was also required to pay a civil fine of $3.5 million, and spend an additional $10.5 million on environmental projects in the state. Those projects included restoring watersheds and forests; installing solar panels at local schools, government-owned facilities or buildings owned by nonprofit groups; and creating charging stations for electric vehicles to be supplied with zero emission renewable energy sources.
“This lawsuit was a pretty huge deal,” said Garland, whose group has worked to fight multiple proposed expansions to the plant. “They were pumping out huge amount of sulfur dioxide pollution in very blatant violation of the law.”
A search of violations from the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online database for the years 2012–2014 also showed a violation as recent as February 2014, in which a “a formal enforcement action” was taken against the plant that resulted in penalty of nearly $47,000.
Compared to other states, the EPA’s carbon rule calls for Louisiana to make slightly steeper-than-average cuts to carbon emissions from power plants. This is largely because it estimated that it would be easier for Louisiana to cut emissions than other states given how it emits CO2. Specifically, it recommends making emissions cuts of nearly 40 percent — from 1,466 pounds per megawatt-hour in 2012 to 833 pounds per megawatt-hour in 2030. On average, the rules call for a 30 percent emissions cut nationwide by 2030.
However, Louisiana does not get majority of its power from coal — according to the EPA, the state got just under 21 percent of its power from coal in 2012, with natural gas plants accounting for nearly 58 percent; nuclear accounting for 15 percent; and biomass about 2.3 percent.