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Judge rules in favor of Bow coal plant in lawsuit alleging harm to Merrimack River

The Merrimack Generating Station sits on the banks of the Merrimack River. A small group of boaters can be seen paddling in the river.
Mara Hoplamazian / NHPR
The Merrimack Generating Station sits on the banks of the Merrimack River.

New England’s last running coal plant, the Merrimack Generating Station in Bow, received a favorable court ruling last week. The Sierra Club and Conservation Law Foundation had sued the company that owns the plant, Granite Shore Power, alleging it was harming the local ecosystem and violating a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The plant’s cooling system draws up water from the Merrimack River, uses it to cool the steam used to generate electricity, and then puts the hot water back into the river after it goes through a cooling canal.

Hot water is considered a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency, and federal officials say heat can affect water quality and fish.

The two advocacy organizations said the heat the plant put into the river was influencing the local ecosystem, and that was a violation of its permit. The lawsuit was a citizen’s enforcement case under the Clean Water Act, which allows citizens to enforce rules that state or federal officials haven’t.

The plant’s owners have said upgrading that system would cost millions of dollars. Lawyers for the plant argued the plant hasn’t violated its permit, and is complying with stricter regulations set out in a 2020 permit it’s not yet subject to.

The case was initially filed in 2019, and lawyers and experts on both sides met for a bench trial in October of last year.

Lawyers for the Sierra Club and the Conservation Law Foundation asked Judge Joseph Laplante to declare that the plant had violated their permit, order the owners to remediate the harm, pay penalties, and change their operations by installing a new cooling system or telling New England’s grid operator they couldn't operate at full capacity when river levels are low.

But Judge Laplante ruled in favor of the coal plant, saying the environmental groups hadn’t provided enough evidence on some counts, or their evidence was outweighed by other factors, like the Environmental Protection Agency’s data and analysis.

The Conservation Law Foundation and the Sierra Club said they were disappointed in the ruling, and evaluating next steps to protect environmental health.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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