Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Law students file suit against Xcel Energy

DU’s Environmental Law Clinic filed suit Aug. 6 in federal court against Xcel Energy over the operation of the Cherokee Station coal-fired power plant on behalf of WildEarth Guardians.

The suit contends Xcel has repeatedly violated federal standards for limiting and monitoring opacity levels from the emissions of four coal-fired units at the plant north of Denver. Opacity levels act as an indicator of whether a unit is emitting particulate matter and other pollutants that pose a serious health threat to the public. Particulates are blamed for serious and adverse health effects including increased respiratory symptoms such as coughing and difficulty breathing; decreased lung function; aggravated asthma; chronic bronchitis; irregular heartbeat; nonfatal heart attacks; and premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

Working with the University’s law clinic, New Mexico-based WildEarth Guardians notified Xcel in January 2008 that it was operating in violation of Clean Air Act standards. The company was warned again in April 2009 in advance of the lawsuit. The suit now asks the court to force Xcel to comply with monitoring regulations and cease operations if monitoring equipment is not functioning. In addition, the suit asks the court to assess civil penalties of up to $37,500 per day per violation.

According to the suit, Xcel’s own reporting shows “repeated and continuing violations” of federal standards dating back to 2004.

“Xcel has unlawfully operated Cherokee and continues to do so by failing to continuously monitor opacity emissions, in violation of the continuous emission monitoring requirements,” the suit states.

The Environmental Law Clinic gives student lawyers the opportunity to practice real law in federal courts under the guidance of a professor. Students assist in gathering research, working with clients, drafting briefs and presenting arguments in court.

“Working in the Environmental Law Clinic is demanding and challenging,” says Harris, who heads the clinic. “But it offers students something they can’t get in the classroom: real-world experience. They learn to prepare thoroughly and expect the unexpected, and they have the opportunity to serve the public good, working with nonprofit groups and protecting the environment and the public.”

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