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The state has imposed $900,000 in fines on Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. for violating air-pollution rules through the years at its former power plants in the Town of Tonawanda and Dunkirk and two other upstate sites.

The penalty, which NiMo officials insist will be paid by its shareholders and not ratepayers, is the largest single penalty ever imposed by the state for violation of clean-air standards, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The two Buffalo-area plants -- the C.R. Huntley Station in the Town of Tonawanda and the Dunkirk Station -- have long been the target of criticism by environmentalists for their pollution-belching ways, including the dumping of large amounts of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide. The plants have routinely shown up as among the dirtiest power plants in the state and have been blamed by environmentalists for everything from increased smog levels to the spread of acid rain.

"It sends a clear message to all power plant operators that violations of emissions standards are unacceptable, and the DEC will pursue strict penalties against facilities that fail to comply with New York State environmental laws," DEC Commissioner John P. Cahill said.

The two Western New York power plants were sold to NRG Energy for $355 million. The other two former NiMo plants cited by the DEC are the Oswego Station and the Albany Steam Station.

The Huntley, Oswego and Dunkirk plants are now owned by NRG Energy; the Albany Steam Station is the property of PSEG Power.

DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said that "there are still some problems" with emissions from the plants under the new ownership.

"Right now we are monitoring the new owners of the plants," Constantakes said. "There probably still are some violations, but it looks like some things have improved from the past. If there are any violations, we will definitely look into enforcement actions."

The penalties dealt with several thousand incidents between 1996 and 1999, when particularly high pollution emissions occurred. The violations involved so-called opacity emissions, which are particularly dense smoke emissions. State law bans such emissions from obscuring the view of an object in the background by 20 percent over a six-minute period.

Stephen Brady, a NiMo spokesman, questioned why it took the DEC so long to get news of the fine released, because he said NiMo essentially agreed to the action last year. A DEC spokesman said the timing was related to a consent order that was signed just last week.

Brady said the company has already recorded the fine against its books as a charge to be paid by shareholders, not ratepayers. He said NiMo was eager to settle the issue now that it no longer owns the power plants. Talks have been under way since 1999 between NiMo and the state to resolve the matter.

"It was our judgment, especially since we are out of that business, that it was in everybody's best interest to put this behind us and move on," Brady said.

Asked whether the agreement represents an acknowledgment by NiMo that the plants were as dirty as environmentalists alleged through the years, Brady said, "I wouldn't characterize it that way." Pollution levels were exceeded at times, he said, but it was not a constant problem. Instead, he said, the older plants put out more of the emissions when they were firing up and shutting down.

Environmentalists were relieved that plants they had long fought against were now being recognized by the state as exceeding pollution limits.

"This is very encouraging," said Kyle Rabin, air and energy program associate for the lobbying group Environmental Advocates.

But Rabin said the order against NiMo dealt with only certain kinds of pollutants.

The Huntley and Dunkirk plants both burn coal; the other two plants cited by the DEC burn either natural gas or oil.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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