UNC-Chapel Hill’s Cameron Avenue coal plant—its smokestack, wires, and monstrous machinery—isn’t a relic of the past. It’s alive and burning tons of coal every day, while the university, in the meantime, is in another cycle of spin around its inadequate environmental promises.
The university’s new Climate Action Plan, released in April, declares that the school will now aim to be emission-neutral—but not coal-free—by the year 2040. At about the same time the school released this information, it began litigating with the nonprofit N.C. Center for Biological Diversity over its alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.
Additionally, the N.C. Division of Air Quality (DAQ) has finally drafted a new permit for UNC’s cogeneration plant after an earlier version was rejected in 2018. The new contract has no threshold for heat input, meaning there is no maximum amount of coal the university can burn in a given time period. While the Clean Air Act sets maximums at the federal level, the university wouldn’t be regulated by the state.
The DAQ held a public hearing last week to hear what North Carolinians had to say about the new permit. Comments were overwhelmingly negative.
Wayne Helms, who grew up in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, says he and his brother suffer from “respiratory afflictions” that started in childhood and persist today. Now, he says, today’s children breathe in the same toxins.
“It’s been a constant assault, not only on the poor communities who live directly around [the plant] who are historically shafted at every turn. But also … a constant assault on the middle class, and the rich, and their children, and every UNC student, faculty, staff member,” Helms said at the hearing.
UNC-Chapel Hill is the only school in the UNC System that operates its own coal plant. When it promised to divest from coal in 2010, it was one of 60 schools in the country that relied on a campus coal plant. Still, the school says it’s divesting from coal as quickly as it can.
“We have a forward-focused and action-oriented approach to our sustainability efforts, and welcome community engagement in that work,” said Michael Piehler, the university’s chief sustainability officer, in a statement to the INDY.
UNC’s original power plant opened in the 1920s in Phillips Hall. The Cameron Avenue plant was completed in 1940. It overlooks Pine Knolls and Tin Top, two historically Black neighborhoods at the edge of the university’s campus.
This year, the Department of Environmental Quality counted a higher number of Latinx and Asian residents living in census tracts within a mile radius of the plant compared to the rest of Orange County, and a slightly higher number of Black, native, and biracial residents, too.
But the problems are historic. In 1970, The Daily Tar Heel published an article about pollution from the plant; the report stated that the school burned 24,000 tons of coal in 1969. In 2006, the school reportedly burned 200-450 tons of coal a day—at least 73,000 tons per year.
Since the mid-2000s, the university says it has worked to reduce its emissions. The 2021 Climate Action Plan draft reports a 44 percent decrease in coal use since 2007.
The new plan is the fourth commitment the university has made in the last dozen years to a timeframe for weaning itself off coal. In 2009, the first Climate Action Plan vowed that the university would be carbon-neutral by 2050. In 2010, then-chancellor Holden Thorp upped the ante, saying that the university would be completely coal-free by 2020. UNC was one of the few schools to respond quickly to the Sierra Club’s Campuses Beyond Coal action, and was praised by the groups it’s now battling in court.
By 2012, the administration said going coal-free wasn’t possible, according to reporting from The Daily Tar Heel. The school announced in 2017 that it would revert to a 2050 deadline. Now, the university is targeting 2040—a year ahead of schedule and the year scientists predict we’ll be unable to repair the damage from climate change.
Perrin de Jong, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, says the university’s flip-flops are indicative of the political changes that began around 2010, when the GOP took over the General Assembly, the Governor’s office, and, ultimately, the UNC System Board of Governors.
“What I see is a pattern at UNC of waging the culture wars relentlessly,” de Jong says. He points to the shutdown of the UNC Center for Civil Rights legal clinic in 2017, and the 2019 multimillion-dollar settlement between the university and the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans. The ongoing litigation and permit changes are the same battle—just on the environmental front.
The 2019 lawsuit from the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity alleged that UNC is allowed to emit four to six times the nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide levels allowed under the Clean Air Act.
The new permit cuts out a heat input threshold entirely, despite the environmental groups’ findings that 269 violations of the current heat input limit have occurred since May 2019, a fraction of the 7,830 permit violations documented since December 2014.
This first permit renewal came in 2018 and was redrafted after the environmentalists poked holes in the proposal and a court ruled in 2020 that UNC could not dismiss nine of 10 charges brought against it. Now, the state has months to settle the concerns before the current permit expires this year.
Burning coal is not more economical for the university. It’s actually becoming cheaper to generate renewable energy, such as solar and wind. The coal plant comprises only about 15 percent of the university’s energy sources; de Jong says it’d be easiest for the school to convert entirely to the Duke Energy grid, which is powered by an array of services including renewable energy. That’s similar to the University of Georgia’s 2015 move when it decommissioned its coal boiler.
“North Carolina is the number two producer of renewable energy in the United States,” de Jong says. “It’s also the second-fastest-growing producer of renewable energy, and it’s now the number one state for renewable energy jobs. And none of those jobs are at UNC. So that shows you the difference between just plugging into the grid and taking the increasingly clean share of energy that’s coming off the grid, versus just continuing to burn coal on campus.”
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