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Environmental groups are suing the EPA in federal court over what they call an inadequate plan to reduce air pollution in Western Pennsylvania. 

The lawsuit centers on the EPA’s approval of a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection plan to lower sulfur dioxide emissions at four coal-fired power plants in Indiana County. Sulfur dioxide is a byproduct of burning coal, and can cause health impacts over periods of just a few minutes, according to the EPA. 

Charlie McPhedran, an attorney with EarthJustice, one of the plaintiffs, said the plan the EPA approved allows two of the plants to exceed recommended pollution limits over short periods of time, as long as their average pollution levels over a period of days or weeks stay below their recommended threshold. The Seward Power Plant, in New Florence, Pa., can average its emissions over 30 days.

Those 30 days can contain enormous spikes in emissions that are averaged out by lower emissions at the same period, but the EPA standard is not protecting people when those plants are having spikes,” McPhedran said.

Sulfur dioxide is linked to respiratory and heart disease and can damage plants and forests, according to the EPA. Indiana County is one of several areas in Western Pennsylvania that fail to meet EPA’s standards for SO2. 

The pollutant’s potency, which has been shown to affect asthmatics even at low levels in as little as two minutes, is why the groups are suing the EPA, McPhedran said. 

“The potential impact is a risk that people in this area will be subject to high emissions of sulfur dioxide, perhaps from more than one plant at the same time,” McPhedran said. 

The groups want the EPA to shrink the reporting time for the coal plants to one hour, which is in line with the agency’s general standard for sulfur dioxide. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, through a spokesman, declined to comment. The EPA, through a spokesman, said it is reviewing the lawsuit. 

The plaintiffs are the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, PennFuture, Earthjustice, and Clean Air Council. They are filing their lawsuit with the 3rd Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. 

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.