updated 7/6/2005 2:55:25 PM ET 2005-07-06T18:55:25

The nation’s largest power generator broke clean air rules when it failed to cut emissions of smog-producing soot that causes health problems and fouls the environment, a Justice Department lawyer said Wednesday.

The case against Columbus-based American Electric Power that got under way in federal court is the biggest of several filed in the waning days of the Clinton administration against utilities in the Midwest and South.

The government and eight states in the Northeast say AEP broke the law when it made major modifications to nine coal-burning plants without installing equipment that would have cut pollution drastically.

“The plaintiffs expect to establish that AEP’s conduct has resulted in an environmental harm,” Leslie Bellas, an attorney with the government’s environmental enforcement section, said in opening statements.

U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus is hearing the case without a jury. AEP could be forced to pay billions of dollars for pollution controls and millions of dollars in penalties if it broke the Clean Air Act.

AEP and other utilities that face similar suits contend that the work done on the plants was routine maintenance — not major modifications that trigger the requirement for expensive new pollution controls.

The Bush administration in 2002 and 2003 rewrote the EPA regulations that Clinton used to bring suits against aging, coal-burning power plants. Those new regulations have been placed on hold while federal courts review challenges to them.

Even so, Justice Department officials have continued during the Bush presidency to file lawsuits against coal-burning plants and negotiate settlements involving fines and new pollution controls.

AEP has more than 5 million customers in 11 states. The nine plants at issue are in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Virginia.

Eight other states are involved in the lawsuit because they claim pollution from the plants drifted into their air. The states are New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maryland.

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