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A firey skipper butterfly gathers nectar from a naked stem buckwheat plant at the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009, in Antioch, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Staff)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Environmentalists sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday, claiming it had prevented them from testifying last year that permitting PG&E's power plant in Antioch risked community health and an endangered local butterfly.

Wild Equity Institute argues that the EPA failed to respond to the group's petition against an air emissions permit for the Gateway Generating Station, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court of Northern California.

The lawsuit is seeking a court order forcing an EPA response to the petition.

"We just felt like they weren't going to respond, even though they were aware of our request," said Laura Horton, staff attorney for Wild Equity.

The group had given two 60-day notices of intents to sue.

"It's been indicative of how they (PG&E and the EPA) have treated our efforts," she said.

The lack of response prevented the group from advocating for cleaner air and the Lange's Metalmark butterfly, found only in the Antioch waterfront area, Horton said.

An EPA spokesman said this week that the agency will review the complaint, but has no further comment at this time.

In the suit, Wild Equity says the permit, issued by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in late October, should be rejected by the EPA because it does not include authorization from the Fish and Wildlife Service for "incidental take" of species affected by pollution from the Gateway plant.


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If the EPA objects to the permit, which Horton said is the group's ultimate goal, Gateway may be required to improve pollution controls or mitigate air pollution impacts.

PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian said the utility has not seen the complaint.

"To our knowledge, we are not a party to this lawsuit," she said. The company reiterated this week that Gateway, which started operating in early 2009, is state-of-the-art and emits extremely low levels of nitrogen oxides while being in full compliance with limitations set by its clean air permits.

It also has a voluntary Safe Harbor agreement for 12 acres of dune habitat on its property for the butterfly and plant species, has created a vegetation management plan and holds twice-a-year weed control days.

Additional habitat restoration efforts are being planned, including development of a dune restoration plan where PG&E provides sand from its property to the refuge, Sarkissian said. The Antioch Shoreline refuge is the only place in the world where the bright reddish-orange Lange's Metalmark is found. The insect's numbers have dropped from more than 25,000 early in the 20th century to 78 last fall.

Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.