The Associated Press

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - North Carolina's attorney general is pressing forward with a lawsuit that accuses the nation's largest federal utility of causing a "public nuisance" by failing to reduce pollution from its coal-fired power plants.

Roy Cooper says his team is identifying experts to bolster the state's case against the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The lawsuit claims TVA has not taken enough steps to reduce the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and soot that has wafted into North Carolina from 11 coal-burning plants in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama.

"We're going to have experts to show how visibility in the mountains will significantly improve, how many deaths will be prevented, and how many hospital admissions will be reduced when TVA takes steps to cut down on its pollution," Cooper told the Asheville Citizen-Times in an interview published Thursday.

Interviews of potential witnesses could begin as soon as February, even as an appeal is pending to dismiss the case.

A federal judge in Asheville refused in July to throw out the case. U.S. District Judge Lacy Thornburg rejected TVA arguments that there's no law under which North Carolina can sue the agency for the pollution claims.

Cooper said the state will call experts to describe how the pollution affects the health and well-being of residents, particularly in western North Carolina.

The region had the state's highest rate of incidences of asthma last year, at 9.2 percent. The state average is 6.5 percent, according to 2005 statistics.

"We know from studies in North Carolina that air pollution causes about one-third to one-half of the asthma attacks in any given year," said Clay Ballantine, an Asheville doctor who treats hospital patients for asthma, heart attacks, strokes and other diseases.

A TVA spokesman, Gil Francis, said the utility is preparing for the case, but declined to give details.

Balancing consequences

The utility argues that the lawsuit should be dismissed because TVA has specialized authority to "provide low-cost reliable electric power" while balancing the competing social, economic and political consequences of doing so.

Cooper wants TVA to reduce emission levels at its plants to a level comparable with North Carolina's 14 coal-fired power plants.

The 2002 state Clean Smokestacks Act requires plants to make a 77 percent cut in nitrogen oxide emissions by 2009 and a 73 percent cut in sulfur dioxide emissions by 2013.

TVA already has six sulfur dioxide scrubbers in place and expects to add five more, two of which are under construction. So far, sulfur emissions have been cut by 80 percent to 85 percent below 1977 levels.

The utility also has 20 selective catalytic reduction systems in place to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from its plants. These and other emissions have reduced summer nitrogen emissions by 80 percent since 1995.

Cooper also has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to force coal-fired power plants in 13 other states to cut down on pollution they are contributing to North Carolina.

TVA attorneys argue that federal laws will require utilities in 28 states, including TVA, to reduce sulfur, nitrogen and mercury emissions, which should meet North Carolina's air quality standards by 2010.

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