JOE MANDAK

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.

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