Alcoa, Citizens Groups Agree on Emissions Cleanup

Neighbors for Neighbors * Environmental Defense * Public Citizen

April 9, 2003

Alcoa, Citizens Groups Agree on Emissions Cleanup

 

Groups Settle Lawsuit in Exchange for Immediate Pollution Cuts

AUSTIN – Three citizens groups and federal regulators have reached a settlement with Alcoa over allegations that the aluminum giant illegally released more then one million tons of air pollution from its Rockdale, Texas, facility over the past 17 years.

Under terms submitted Tuesday for approval in federal district court, Alcoa will be required to reduce immediately its emissions of harmful pollutants from the Rockdale smelter. The company must make even larger pollution reductions over the next few years.

The settlement requires Alcoa to pay the U.S. Treasury a $1.5 million fine. Alcoa also must spend $2.5 million on two environmental mitigation projects in Central Texas: a land purchase project and a project to reduce emissions from school buses.

The lawsuit against Alcoa by the citizens groups – and related allegations subsequently lodged against Alcoa by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – were prompted when Neighbors for Neighbors uncovered extensive evidence that Alcoa had been violating the Clean Air Act.

Billie Woods, Neighbors for Neighbors president, said, “The bottom line for us was to make Alcoa reduce some of its air pollution now, not just promise to do so five or 10 years down the road.”

Neighbors for Neighbors and two national organizations, Environmental Defense and Public Citizen, filed suit against Alcoa in federal district court in Austin in 2001. The suit alleged that in the mid-1980s, Alcoa essentially rebuilt its three power generating units at the Rockdale plant without installing any new air pollution control equipment or obtaining a required Clean Air Act permit. Had Alcoa followed the law then, Texas would have been spared more than one million tons of excess pollution.

For years, Alcoa’s Rockdale plant has been the state’s largest “grandfathered” polluter, spewing more than 100,000 tons of air emissions annually. Grandfathered polluters generally are exempt from post-1971 Clean Air Act standards.

Working from the Neighbors group’s findings, the EPA and TCEQ cited Alcoa for violating the “new source review” provisions of the Clean Air Act. Under new source review, a grandfathered plant is no longer exempted from having to install modern pollution controls if it overhauls its facilities and emits more pollution than it did before. The Bush administration has proposed that new source review be largely eliminated.

Jim Marston, Texas director for Environmental Defense, said, “This settlement shows that new source review is a valuable tool in cleaning our air and keeping polluters in check. It enabled a small band of citizens to stand up to a big polluter and win.”

The settlement requires that Alcoa take interim measures to reduce air pollution from its Rockdale plant until it either installs new pollution control equipment on its three power units or builds new units with modern pollution controls. A third option available through the settlement calls for Alcoa to shut down the three units and rely on electricity from other sources, such as a fourth, less-polluting Rockdale power unit owned and operated by Texas Utilities.

The deadline for Alcoa to choose one of the three options likely will be sometime in the summer of 2004, Woods said. If Alcoa chooses to shut down its three units, it would be required to do so by the end of 2006.

The interim measures required of Alcoa include reducing in June its emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) from the three power-generating units by some 7,000 to 8,000 tons annually (the plant currently emits more than 60,000 tons of SO2 each year). Other interim measures involve immediate reductions in nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emitted by the three units.

Over the long-term, the settlement will require Alcoa to reduce its emissions of SO2 by about 95 percent and reduce nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by about 90 percent.

Woods said her group would have preferred that the settlement require Alcoa to make larger reductions sooner and to pay a fine more in line with the profits it made by violating the law.

“But given current efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act, the settlement is the best we could probably hope for,” she said.

The settlement requires Alcoa to spend $1.75 million to fund the purchase of threatened lands in Bastrop and Lee counties, with the land being held by the Pines and Prairies Land Trust and the Trust for Public Land. Alcoa also must spend $750,000 to fund a school bus emission reduction program in Central Texas.

Kelly Haragan, staff attorney for Public Citizen’s Texas office, said, “Alcoa has long been one of Texas’ biggest air polluters. This settlement not only means cleaner air for Texans to breathe, but is a great testament to what ordinary citizens can accomplish.”

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