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Environment & Energy

Gas-Fired Power Plant Proposal Spurs Controversy in Westmoreland County

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Flickr user Linday Attaway
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A new gas-fired power plant has been proposed for Westmoreland County, and environmental groups have been scrutinizing the permit applications submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection.

Omaha-based energy company Tenaska has been working on the proposal since 2009, and anticipates approval of the DEP permits in the next couple of months, according to project manager Monte Ten Kley.

“They’ve issued the draft permit and we feel we have answered and addressed all of their questions and provided them all the information that was required,” Ten Kley said.

A “listening session” with Tenaska and DEP officials is scheduled for 6pm on Wednesday, January 21 at the Turkeytown Fire Hall at 90 Supervisor Drive in West Newton.

Among those with questions and concerns will be representatives from the Mountain Watershed Association and the PA Clean Air Council. The groups say the company did not provide enough data in its permit application to accurately predict potential risks to the environment and nearby communities, including students at two grade schools that are within one mile of the proposed power plant site.

“One of our primary concerns is that it will discharge about 1.2 million gallons per day of waste water directly into the Youghigheny River near Smithton,” said Nick Kennedy, community advocate with the Mountain Watershed Association.

Kennedy said the group is worried about the temperature of the water which will be dumped into the river. At a similar Tenaska plant in Texas, Kennedy said, the company is able to cool the water to 95 degrees before discharge, but the Westmoreland proposal specifies that the water will be only be cooled to 110 degrees.

“Texas actually limited it to 95 degrees, so we commented to DEP that it should be a similar restriction, or if it is going to be different, that should be explained, the 95 versus the 110, why it’s not appropriate for a more restrictive control in Pennsylvania,” Kennedy said.

Another concern has to do with the way the company will test the effects of chemicals in the waste water on wildlife. Kennedy said the DEP should require more rigorous testing, called whole effluent toxicity, or WET, testing.

“WET testing looks at a more comprehensive approach of what are these things combined? What will that do to aquatic life?” Kennedy explained. “As opposed to looking at one singular effect, you look at the combined effect (of the chemicals).”

But Ten Kley said there is no state regulation that requires such testing in this case.

“Our response is pretty simple,” Ten Kley said. “The DEP reviewed our application and our draft permit and they said WET testing for the Yough was not required.”

Kennedy said potential pollutants from the waste water include chromium, which has been linked to cancer-causing mutations; zinc, which can effect growth and reproduction of aquatic life; oil and grease which can block oxygen uptake in aquatic animals; and chloride and bromide, which are harmful to algae and bacteria.

Kennedy said the Mountain Watershed Association wants to see greater scrutiny of the air and water quality management plans before DEP permits are issued.

“We just want to make sure that the proper expert analysis is done to this, and that the DEP and local government has an open dialogue with its members so they can fully weigh and assess the risks and the benefits of this project and to consider the effects on the Youghigheny,” Kennedy said.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Matt Walker of the PA Clean Air Council, which has responded to the DEP questioning the data Tenaska presented in its permit applications.

Walker said the application classifies the plant as a minor source for hazardous air pollutants, but that he believes it would actually produce greater levels of hazardous chemicals.

“The hazardous air pollutant levels could be tripping this power plant into what’s called a major source of pollution … and it would then have additional regulations and requirements it would fall under,” Walker said.

Additionally, Walker said the company used outdated modeling techniques to predict the effect of air pollutants and emissions on the environment and nearby residents.

Ten Kley said the DEP agreed with Tenaska that the power plant would qualify only as a minor source of hazardous air pollutants. He also said the EPA has not release new modeling guidelines that apply to the Tenaska project.

Ten Kley said the company has received a warm reception from residents of Westmoreland County.

“Many of the people living in the area are excited about the idea of the power plant coming because of the economic benefits the project will bring, not just the 25 full time jobs or the 300 people that will be working on the project while it’s getting built, but there’s a lot of other opportunities that go with those people coming in and out of the project site on a daily basis,” Ten Kley said.

He said he expects that the permits will be issued and the plant will begin operating in 2018.

While Wednesday’s meeting is largely informal, an official DEP public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for February 11. It will also be held at the Turkeytown Fire Hall.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that the Mountain Watershed Association does not oppose the plant in general. Nick Kennedy contacted 90.5 WESA to clarify that “MWA is opposed to the new discharge of contaminants to the Yough, and is opposed to the project as a whole based on what we believe to be an incomplete analysis of its effects. With that said, if the NPDES permit does progress we want to make sure that the effects of the discharge are fully understood and minimized to the greatest extent possible.”