2011-05-26 / Local & State

EPA Pa. Hearing Slated On Limiting Coal Emissions

PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Federal environmental officials will be in Philadelphia on Tuesday to gather reaction to proposed rules to force coal plants to clean up their stacks.

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking public comment on a rule that would curb emissions of mercury, arsenic, lead, nickel, chromium and acid gases from coal plants. Other rules in the works would limit ozone, particulates, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

Coal provides 45 percent of the nation’s electricity, and the output of Pennsylvania’s 40 plants puts it in the front ranks of coal-burning states.

But officials estimate that half of Pennsylvania’s aging coal plants will have to make major investments to reduce emissions. Or switch to cleaner fuels, as PPL did with the 1950s-era Martins Creek plant in Northampton County that now burns natural gas. Or shut down, as Exelon Corp. says it plans for aged plants in Eddystone and Phoenixville.

Even assuming that coal will be part of the energy mix for the next generation, “what do you do with these old plants?’’ asked Joseph O. Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council in Philadelphia.

“They just go trudging along,’’ he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. Officials “sort of skirt the requirements in the hopes that they’ll be able to squeeze a few more years out of them.’’

Last year, state environmental officials asked the federal government to take action against another Northampton County plant, Portland, built in 1958 and owned by GenOn Energy.

In March, the agency proposed requiring the plant to reduce sulfur-dioxide emissions by 81 percent over three years. Public comment is being sought until Friday.

GenOn spokesman Mark Baird says the plant had complied with all Pennsylvania and federal standards, and once new federal standards are in place, “one way or another, we’ll comply.’’

The federal government and neighboring New York and New Jersey have gone to court over Pennsylvania’s second-largest coal plant, in Homer City, about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh, saying it spews pollution hundreds of miles away and the sulfur dioxide emissions alone – more than 100,000 tons a year – makes the plant “one of the largest air pollution sources in the nation.’’

Charley Parnell, a spokesman for Edison Mission Energy, which has operated the plant since 1999, said the company should not be responsible for the actions of a previous owner. He said the company has not opposed installing new controls, has put some in and is “waiting to find out what the new rules of the road were going to be’’ before installing others.

Some environmentalists say the future of coal-generated electricity can be seen south of Trenton, N.J., where the Mercer Generating Station, which first came online in 1960, is now three times as big as it used to be because of more than half a billion dollars in air-pollution equipment that has reduced emissions 90 percent or more.

“This is how coal in the 21st century looks,’’ said Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Eric B. Svenson Jr., vice president of utility Public Service Enterprise Group, of Newark, N.J., said only onethird of the plant is now tied to electricity production, while the other two-thirds is a chemical plant for cleaning up the emissions.

Svenson said companies have seen the rules coming and “we think there’s limited excuse for not getting this thing done.’’

Some environmental advocates still argue that the plant should have converted to a cleaner fuel.

“In this day and age, we should be retiring and replacing them with cleaner alternatives, not figuring out a way to string them along into the future,’’ said Matt Elliott of Environment New Jersey.

But William O’Sullivan, air quality director with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the latest Mercer test results have impressed him.

Although his staff is still reviewing the data, the emissions “are likely amongst the lowest in the country for coal burners and lower than from oil-fired units,’’ O’Sullivan said. “Some of the emission levels are in the same range as burning natural gas.’’

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