Seeking quick repairs and millions of dollars in penalties, the federal government filed lawsuits in November accusing utility companies of releasing huge amounts of air pollution at coal-fired electricity plants throughout the Midwest and South.

Targeted are 32 aging, coal-fired power plants in 10 states from Florida to Ohio. The government argues that the companies made illegal repairs rather than employing more modern pollution-controlling technology.

“Every American should be able to breathe clean air. This administration is committed to pursuing the polluters that are to blame,” Attorney General Janet Reno said.

Added EPA Administrator Carol Browner: “Today’s actions will help us stop millions of tons of pollutants that cause choking smog and corrosive acid rain throughout the Midwest and up and down the East Coast.”

The utilities said they would contest the government’s charges. “We are confident that there is absolutely no substantive basis for this enforcement action,” said Tal Wright, spokesman for Atlanta-based Southern Co. “EPA’s allegation — that by maintaining our power plants well, we have created a ‘new source’ of pollution — is absurd.”

The lawsuits, filed by the Justice Department on behalf of the EPA, seek to force the facilities to install modern air pollution control technology. The suits were filed in federal courts in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Tampa, East St. Louis, IL, and Columbus, OH.

The suits allege that 17 electric utility plants — owned by American Electric Power, Cinergy, FirstEnergy, Illinois Power, Southern Indiana Gas & Electric Company, Southern Company, Tampa Electric Company or their subsidiaries — violated the Clean Air Act by making major modifications to many of their plants without installing the equipment required to control smog, acid rain and soot.

Pollution from Midwest power plants, especially nitrogen oxide emissions, are also blamed for contributing to East Coast air quality problems as well as the Bay’s nitrogen problems.

The government’s actions stem from a provision in the 1970s Clean Air Act that exempted the old coal-fired plants from meeting tough standards applied to new facilities so long as the plants maintained the status quo. Lawmakers believed the old plants eventually would be replaced by newer, cleaner technologies.

But the government alleges the companies instead spent millions of dollars modifying the plants, thereby increasing their lives and their emissions. “They did it all without applying for a permit, without public involvement, without installing pollution control technology,” Browner said.

One plant spent $60 million on five new furnaces, Browner said. Another spent $10 million on 10 new burners.

The seven companies involved are responsible for 30 percent of the coal-fired electric-generating capacity in the United States.