PITTSBURGH (AP) â¿¿ A coalition of environmental groups claims a western Pennsylvania power plant has violated federal pollution laws 12,000 times in the last five years â¿¿ a number far higher than what the state's environmental agency says it has in its records.

The groups say the violations by Houston-based RRI Energy Inc. were for discharging polluted or heated wastewater or allowing a coal refuse pile to pollute groundwater.

PennEnvironment, PennFuture, the Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife on Monday sent an intent-to-sue letter to RRI relating to its Seward Generating Station and the nearby Conemaugh River, about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh.

The power plant burned pulverized coal for 82 years before being re-engineered to burn waste coal in 2004, said Lisa Widawsky, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, which represents the groups. It has since been recognized as a "clean coal" plant by the industry.

"If 12,000 violations of cornerstone environmental laws over the past five years is considered 'clean coal' I'd hate to know what the industry considers 'dirty,'" said David Masur, director for PennEnvironment.

"We need to read and review the materials before we are able to discuss them," RRI spokeswoman Laurie Fickman said.

Helen Humphreys, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said she's not sure how the environmentalists are counting the alleged violations because the agency has recorded only 212 since 1999.

"We have the difficulty of being restricted to the law. A violation is defined in the permit and we don't get to deviate from that," Humphreys said.

Humphreys said she could not comment on the letter the environmental groups sent to RRI because agency attorneys haven't had a chance to review it. She can't even comment on their methodology, she said.

"I have, at this point, no way of knowing how they've reached that number," she said.

Environmental groups must give companies 60 days notice before filing lawsuits seeking court-ordered compliance with pollution laws and penalties of up to $37,500 for each day the plant violated the Clean Water Act.

The groups contend the plant has exceeded permit levels for wastewater containing heavy metals or other toxins. Pollutants from the coal refuse pile are also draining into the groundwater and enter the river that way, they claim.

The groups have monitoring wells up and downstream from the plant, and above and below the waste pile, and have found much higher pollution levels below them.

The plant is allowed to pump wastewater from a cooling tower into the river, but those permitted discharges are allowed to change the temperature of the river by no more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit each hour. But Widawsky said temperature changes of up to 20 degrees have been recorded, endangering fish and other wildlife.

The groups contend part of the problem is lax enforcement by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

According to the letter of intent, 5,000 plant discharge violations were self-reported by RRI to the DEP in the last five years. Another 6,000 pollution violations from the refuse pile also are documented in groundwater and surface water monitoring reports RRI files with the agency, Widawsky said.

Widawsky said the DEP's position has been "that they have been working with this polluter to clean up its act."

Karl Limbach, 54, lives in nearby Fairfield Township, and said he sees few fish when kayaking in the river. His friends and family bring extra clothes when they go to the river because the acidic water stains them.

"The river is so highly polluted we bring with us what are called 'Conemaugh clothes,'" Limbach said.

The river has been designated as "impaired" by the DEP because of its high concentration of metals and its acidic state.

The Sierra Club and PennEnvironment sued what was then Reliant Energy in 2007, saying its nearby Conemaugh Generating Station was polluting the river and thwarting efforts to clean it up. A federal judge tossed out the lawsuit in December, saying the groups couldn't prove the pollution, which the company acknowledged, caused the river damage.

Masur said the judge has since agreed to revisit that ruling.

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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