It’s impossible to ignore the monstrous coal plant sitting at the end of Cameron Avenue and McCauley Street, with its tall grey smokestacks standing among rental homes. On Tuesday, it became the subject of a multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit. 

The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity brought a “citizen enforcement action” against UNC-Chapel Hill over alleged violations of the Clean Air Act. The groups want the university to pay $37,500 for every day it has burned more coal than its permit allows between November 2009 and November 2015, and almost $45,000 per day after that.

The groups claim that the university’s over-reliance on coal and lackluster plant maintenance run afoul of federal law, leading to an increase in asthma attacks, hospitalizations, and premature death among nearby residents. They also claim the plant is emitting mercury and lead into the atmosphere.

“UNC needs to join the twenty-first century and stop emitting noxious coal fumes into the air that students, athletes, and local residents breathe,” said Perrin de Jong, a North Carolina-based staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release Tuesday.

The university renewed its contract with the plant this year, despite earlier claims that it would be coal-free by 2020. In February, UNC officials told The Daily Tar Heel that they had pushed back those plans back to 2050.

UNC-CH says its carbon emissions have decreased 19 percent since 2019. Even so, the Center for Biological Diversity says the university has burned more coal than permitted, failed to check pollution-monitoring aids, and failed to notify the North Carolina Division of Air Quality of permit deviations.

An analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity showed that UNC-CH emits four to six times the levels of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide allowed by the Clean Air Act. 

The groups filed an intent to file suit against the university in September. In a letter from Vice-Chancellor Jonathan Pruitt, the university says that it is working to reduce its use of coal, according to the Triangle Business Journal.

UNC-CH is the only school in North Carolina still relying on coal to power itself. Seems like maybe it’s behind the times in more ways than one.

Contact digital content manager Sara Pequeño at

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.