Aluminum Can'ts

Three environmental groups take aluminum giant Alcoa to court.

Late last month, Environmental Defense, Neighbors for Neighbors, and Public Citizen filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Alcoa Corporation, which could result in as much as $150 million in fines for the company. The suit charges that Alcoa's Sandow power plant, which fuels its aluminum smelter in Rockdale, is in violation of the federal Clean Air Act and other federal and state laws. The plaintiffs have asked for a permanent injunction forcing Alcoa to comply with the law, and for the Environmental Protection Agency to assess penalties of $25,000 to $27,500 for each day that Alcoa has violated the act.

Between 1984 and 1987, the suit charges, Alcoa performed a "major overhaul" of the Sandow plant, resulting in significant increases in emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx), and particulate matter. If that's true, then Alcoa would have been required by law to install the best available technology to control emissions, get proper permits for the modifications, and conduct tests to ensure that the modifications would not damage air quality. The suit claims that Alcoa failed to take these measures. Among the plaintiffs' evidence is an article published by the weekly Rockdale Reporter in 1985 in which an Alcoa spokesperson said, "We've torn apart as much as we can without throwing the whole thing away."

Alcoa spokesman Jim Hodson said he is not aware that his company has actually been served with the suit yet, but he denies it has done anything illegal. "Our position is that the work was routine maintenance and replacement," Hodson said. "We shared the details with the Environmental Protection Agency at their request in November of 1990, and there is correspondence in EPA files that says they did review that work. And following that, we never did receive anything from that agency saying that permit applications would be necessary." Despite denying any legal violations, Hodson said Alcoa has agreed to get permits for the units. The company says it plans to spend $100 million to reduce NOx emissions by 50% this year and SO2 by 90% over the next five years.

Meanwhile, Alcoa -- whose former CEO, Paul O'Neill, is now Secretary of the U.S. Treasury -- might get a break if the Bush administration relaxes the provisions of the Clean Air Act that require such increased pollution controls after major upgrades [see "Bush's Xmas Stocking: Burning Coal?" Dec. 28]. Asked if such changes would make the suit moot, Public Citizen staff attorney Kelly Harrigan said she didn't believe so. "Alcoa still violated the law as it existed at the time," Harrigan said, adding that the policy changes are "not retroactive. Because you broke the law in the Eighties, you still broke the law."

Harrigan said she was more concerned about the White House directing the Justice Dept. to end ongoing investigations of violations of the Clean Air Act. On Tuesday, a panel of federal regulators from the Energy Department and EPA officially recommended easing the requirements. Several Northeastern states have threatened to sue the administration if it fails to uphold the act, and two Senate committees have said they intend to investigate the changes.

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