Plant's bid to dump smokestack pollutants into Mon is under fire
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Allegheny Energy is cleaning up smokestack emissions from its Hatfield's Ferry coal-fired power plant in Greene County but wants to dump some of the toxic pollutants it takes out of the air into the drinking water source for more than 90,000 people in southwestern Pennsylvania.
If the utility is permitted to dispose of pollutants in the Monongahela River, it could set a precedent that would let dozens of other old, dirty power plants in the Northeast dump coal combustion wastes collected by new, state and federally mandated air pollution control equipment into rivers and streams, said Abigail Dillen, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm.
"Allegheny Energy is finally installing scrubbers, but that creates a whole new wastewater stream. The controls are taking pollution from the air and putting it into rivers," said Ms. Dillen, who today will file a motion to intervene in Allegheny Energy's appeal of its state-issued water discharge permit.
"Many power plants will be installing scrubbers to clean up their air emissions in the next few years and that will put increasing pressures on water resources," Ms. Dillen said. "We want to establish a different precedent in Pennsylvania so that improving air quality doesn't impact water quality."
She said other power plants that have been retrofitted with smokestack scrubbers and have increased pollution discharges into streams include Edison International's Homer City Generating Station in Indiana County, which discharges into Two Lick Creek and Blacklick Creek, and Reliant Energy's Cheswick Power Plant on the Allegheny River. The Cheswick discharge is about nine miles up river from Pittsburgh's water intake pipes.
Allegheny Energy's water discharge permit for Hatfield's Ferry sets tighter limits on discharges of sulfates and total dissolved solids into the Monongahela River, where elevated dissolved solids levels this winter have caused problems for industries and public water suppliers.
But Ms. Dillen was critical of the state Department of Environmental Protection permit because it also relaxes water discharge controls for the power plant on a number of toxic chemicals, including arsenic, cadmium, mercury, selenium, hexavalent chromium, lead and thallium.
The Greensburg-based utility said in its state Environmental Hearing Board appeal that its existing water-treatment system cannot meet the DEP permit's pollutant discharge limits. To do that, it would need to build a new, $62 million "zero discharge" treatment system and can't do that in time to meet air pollution reductions mandated by the state's Mercury Reduction Rule and the federal Clean Air Interstate Rule in 2010.
"We want to keep moving forward with the scrubber projects, which are big and good and do a lot to improve the air and our emissions," said David Neurohr, an Allegheny Energy spokesman. "We appealed because we want to continue to talk to the DEP on a cooperative basis about water discharges, but this issue shouldn't derail the scrubber project."
The company is spending $725 million to install smokestack "scrubbers" that will cut mercury by 85 percent, sulfur dioxide emissions by 95 percent or 145,000 tons a year and soot emissions by up to 2,000 tons a year at the 1,710-megawatt power plant.
The 40-year-old power plant's air emissions have consistently ranked among the nation's dirtiest. The first of three scrubber systems at Hatfield's Ferry has been installed and will be tested this spring.
Mr. Neurohr said five of Allegheny Energy's 10 coal-fired power plants will be equipped with scrubbers when Hatfield's Ferry and Fort Martin, also on the Monongahela River just south of the Pennsylvania state line in West Virginia, are finished this year. He said the scrubbers will operate on the company's biggest plants and clean 85 percent of its air emissions.
Stack scrubbers like those at Hatfield's Ferry work by injecting a spray of water and fine particle limestone into the smoke produced when coal is burned. That produces a chemical reaction that drops many pollutants out of the air emissions but produces a liquid scrubber sludge.
None of the Allegheny Energy power plants uses zero discharge technologies to treat their scrubber sludge waste. But Mr. Neurohr said water discharged by the power plants, including Hatfield's Ferry, is treated.
"Our water discharges don't contain near the levels of pollutants the scrubbers are removing from the air," he said. "There's nowhere near that one-to-one relationship."
Helen Humphreys, a DEP spokeswoman, said the discharge limits in Hatfield's Ferry's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit are protective of both public health and the environment.
"The installation of the scrubbers is an important advancement in improving our air quality in Pennsylvania," said Ms. Humphreys, who noted that the power plant had until recently been the single biggest emitter of sulfur dioxide in the state. "And it's important to understand we're not interested in transferring pollutants from one transportation system to another. Our goal is to remove the pollutants, not transfer them, and the NPDES permit accomplishes that goal to a large extent."
But an Earthjustice review of permit limits for 86 power plants ranks those in the Hatfield's Ferry permit among the loosest in the nation for toxic metals discharges. And a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study of the coal-fired power industry released in August 2008 concluded that scrubber wastewater contains a "significant concentrations" of chlorides, total dissolved solids, selenium and some toxic metals, including cadmium and lead, that accumulate in the food chain.
"This is not trivial. It's a big, emerging issue," said David McGuigan, associate director of the Office of NPDES Permits and Enforcement in the EPA's Philadelphia regional office. "We need to take a look at what is the best available technology, and what that means with regard to water quality and a stream's assimilative capacity. More attention must be paid to this."
Ms. Dillen said zero discharge treatment systems should be used at Hatfield's Ferry and be required by the EPA and state permitting agencies to better handle the increased waste streaming out of the power plant discharge pipes.
Such treatment technologies are available and are in wide use, though not in Pennsylvania. The EPA's 2008 power industry review surveyed 82 coal-fired power plants that have installed wet scrubbers on their smokestacks and found 30 of them, or 37 percent, had installed zero discharge treatment technologies.
"We wouldn't be doing this if it were insignificant," Ms. Dillen said. "We're not talking trace quantities here. What we see and what the EPA is seeing are very high concentrations of metals in the scrubber sludge. Some power plants are using treatment technologies that remove those from the water discharges and some are not.
"Hatfield's Ferry is a test case for whether DEP's water effluent limits will stick. From a practical point of view, if these good limits stand, DEP will have sustained controls that protect public health and set a precedent."
First Published March 16, 2009 12:00 am