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Cheswick Coal Plant Hearing Draws Scrutiny Over Water Pollution

Reid Frazier
StateImpact Pennsylvania
The coal-fired Cheswick Generating Station produces electricity northeast of Pittsburgh.

More than 20 residents and environmental advocates called for tough limits on water pollution from a coal-fired power plant northeast of Pittsburgh on Wednesday evening.

They spoke at a Department of Environmental Protection hearing on a new permit for the Cheswick Generating Station. The department is updating water pollution permits for 10 coal plants operating on extensions of expired permits, following a settlement with environmental groups.

The updated permits spell out how much of various pollutants each plant can release into rivers and streams. Cheswick has been operating on extensions of a permit that expired in 2012.

Maria Schumack, project manager for the DEP’s Bureau of Clean Water, said the new permit does not weaken existing pollution limits. She said it also sets a level for boron which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, can result in health problems like nausea or diarrhea in people who are exposed to it high levels. The permit also bolsters stormwater monitoring.

Schumack said the permit takes into account Obama-era guidelines for pollutants like arsenic and mercury, assuming the Trump Administration does not rescind them.

Patrick Grenter, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club -- one of the groups that sued DEP over the expired permits -- said he’s glad the state is updating its standards, but he wants to see the department implement the federal guidelines sooner than 2023, when they would take effect.

“This would give the plant more time to continue to dump toxins into the Allegheny River, the drinking water source for much of Allegheny County,” he said.

He also called for an updated limit on bromides to ensure safer drinking water for Pittsburgh-area residents. The water intake for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is a few miles downstream of Cheswick. When bromides interact with chlorine, they can form a byproduct called trihalomethanes, which may increase cancer risk with long-term exposure.

Dave Gaier, a spokesperson for energy company NRG that owns the plant, said the facility does not use bromides in its industrial processes, and they are not discharged at concentrations that would impact downstream water users.

Other members of the public said they want to see the plant shut down, and they expressed concerns that the pollution harms fish and is bad for human health.

Laura Jacko, a resident of Verona several miles downstream of the plant, said she feels compelled to purchase water filtration systems for her house.

“I don’t understand why me and my neighbors have to put our own money into saving our own water when the plant is allowed to contaminate like this,” she said.

Plant manager Kevin Panzino defended his facility. He said it has installed equipment to prevent pollution, and it complies with pollution limits.

“You are all welcome to come to my plant and see what my people do,” he said. “Ninety percent of what we do at this point is related to pollution control.”

He said the plant does not have a free pass to pollute.

“This does not mean, because the permit has not been renewed into a new permit, that the plant is suddenly released of any of the requirements,” he said. “We are now going through the process of updating the permit, to which we have no problem.”

GenOn, a subsidiary of NRG, is expected to emerge from bankruptcy later this year as a separate company and will own the Cheswick plant, Gaier said.

In a statement, he said a majority of the facility’s wastewater comes from the Allegheny River and is used to cool the generating equipment, then released back into the same river.

“Cheswick utilizes treatment equipment to remove pollutants from the wastewater to very low levels prior to discharge to the Allegheny River,” Gaier said. “As described in our Permit, we test our discharges weekly and report the results monthly to the DEP and EPA.”

DEP is also drafting permits for the other nine coal plants that are a part of the settlement with environmental groups. The department held a separate hearing Wednesday on the permit for Talen Energy’s Brunner Island Power Plant in York County.

This story was published in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between WESA, Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY, to cover the commonwealth’s energy economy. Read more stories at StateImpact Pennsylvania's website.