By MEAD GRUVER
The Associated Press April 16, 2010, 8:27AM ET
A lawsuit filed by environmental groups over alleged air pollution violations at a power plant in western Wyoming has resulted in PacifiCorp agreeing to pay $1 million to the federal government.
If approved, the penalty likely would be the largest fine in state history against a single facility for air pollution violations, the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Sierra Club said.
The groups and the Salt Lake City-based utility filed the settlement Thursday in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne. The penalty awaits approval from U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson.
"We're glad to have reached this resolution. It's unfortunate that the violations warranted such a large penalty, but that's the fact of life here," said Reed Zars, an attorney for both environmental groups in the lawsuit.
PacifiCorp spokesman Dave Eskelsen declined to comment beyond acknowledging the settlement. PacifiCorp is owned by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., a unit of Warren Buffett's Omaha, Neb.-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
The groups sued the utility under the Clean Air Act in 2007, alleging the coal-fired Jim Bridger plant northeast of Rock Springs violated pollution limits thousands of times over a five-year period.
At issue was the opacity, or cloudiness, of emissions from the plant smokestacks. In the 1990s, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality claimed the plant didn't need devices for measuring how much light can pass through smokestack emissions, Zars said.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and in 2000 the EPA required the monitors to be installed, Zars said.
Zars said he reviewed state documents years later and found thousands of opacity violations the smokestack monitors had recorded over a five-year period.
The alleged violations occurred within the margin of discretion the EPA provides to states in enforcing air pollution violations, said John Corra, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Corra declined to speculate on whether his agency could have enforced the pollution laws and collected a $1 million penalty for the state. He said he didn't know how the environmental groups and PacifiCorp arrived at the fine amount.
"What we can't say is what we would have done differently if we were not exercising enforcement discretion," Corra said.
The EPA can enforce pollution laws when state agencies can't or won't on their own. EPA spokeswoman Wendy Chipp did not respond to a request for comment.
Under the proposed settlement, PacifiCorp doesn't admit any liability to the lawsuit's allegations. Zars, however, pointed out that opacity violations at the Jim Bridger plant have dropped significantly since the lawsuit was filed.
"I don't think PacifiCorp is in the business of paying bills it doesn't owe," he said.
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