Selenium causes skeletal deformities in fish and can harm people and birds that consume affected fish. Iron, aluminum, and manganese block fish gills, smother fish eggs, and make aquatic life impossible at high enough concentrations. Boron prevents normal growth in waterfowl. For years, the massive coal-fired Conemaugh Generating Station — owned by a consortium of energy companies and operated by GenOn Northeast Management Company — discharged all five of these pollutants into western Pennsylvania’s Conemaugh River in amounts above permitted limits, avoiding responsibility by convincing Pennsylvania regulators that compliance was impossible.
In 2007, NELC filed an enforcement suit against GenOn on behalf of PennEnvironment and Sierra Club to enforce the permit. After four years of litigation, and after NELC attorneys discovered internal documents proving that compliance was indeed possible, a federal judge ruled that GenOn had been “continuously violating” its discharge limits, to the tune of 8,684 violations of the Clean Water Act. After this finding of liability, GenOn agreed to a settlement that required the installation of new wastewater treatment systems, toxicity testing of wastewater discharges, verifiable, sustained compliance with its permit limits, and payment of stipulated penalties for any future transgressions. In addition, GenOn paid the largest penalty in a Clean Water Act citizen suit in Pennsylvania history: $250,000 to the U.S. EPA, with an additional $3.5 million directed to the Foundation for Pennsylvania’s Watersheds to fund restoration and preservation projects in the Conemaugh River watershed.