Allegheny Energy's Effort Fails to Satisfy All

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
14 October 2009
By Rick Stouffer

 Hatfield's Ferry plant - Joe Appel/Tribune-Review

Hatfield's Ferry Power Station at a glance:

Since 2006, Allegheny Energy Inc. has spent nearly $900 million on installation of emissions-control equipment at a single power plant — Hatfield's Ferry in Cumberland, Greene County.

As installation of equipment known as scrubbers wraps up at the plant, environmental groups and the federal government are saying the Greensburg-based power company has made progress, but more challenges and costs are ahead.

The scrubbers will remove 150,000 tons of acid rain-causing sulphur dioxide from the three-unit, 1,710 megawatt power plant, or about 95 percent of the pollutant it makes annually. In addition, the scrubbers will cleanse about 840 pounds of mercury, or 40 percent to 70 percent of the plant's annual discharge.

Allegheny Energy is one of many power plant owners installing scrubbers. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that scrubber additions nationwide are planned for power plants producing 139 million megawatts of electricity at an estimated cost of more than $30 billion. One megawatt of generating capacity powers about 800 homes.

Even so, environmentalists are concerned that the new scrubbers at Hatfield's Ferry are merely transferring emissions from the air to the 1.7 million gallons of water returned daily by the plant to the Monongahela River. About 500,000 gallons of the water is scrubbers-related.

"Our concern now is the permit that the state granted to treat wastewater at Hatfield's Ferry. They are discharging some heavy metals and other pollutants that previously would go up the stacks," said Phil Coleman, a board member with the Washington, Pa.-based environmental group Center for Coalfield Justice.

This year, Coleman was party to an appeal filed by environmental groups Citizens Coal Council of Washington County and the Environmental Integrity Project, Washington, D.C., with the state Environmental Hearing Board. The appeal contests a wastewater discharge permit issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection that allows scrubber-related water to go back into the river.

The groups claims the permit — which is being contested by Allegheny Energy as being too strict — is too lenient because it allows the company to discharge wastewater into the river with alleged high levels of pollutants.

Allegheny Energy disagrees, pointing to a new $25 million wastewater treatment system at the plant that "removes suspended solids and heavy metals from the scrubber stream" and meets limits under federal rules, spokesman Doug Colafella said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection issued the discharge permit in December. The agency included more restrictive limits on solids and sulfate well after Allegheny Energy began construction, Colafella said.

The wastewater retreatment system installed at the plant along with the scrubber project cannot meet the limits in the state permit, Colafella said.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to revise for the first time since 1982 existing wastewater discharge standards for coal-fired power plants. The EPA this year completed a multi-year study of power plant wastewater discharge and concluded the existing 27-year-old rules haven't kept pace with changes in the power industry.

Utilities like Allegheny Energy that generate power at coal-fired plants will face more emission-control challenges.

Late last month, the EPA proposed lowering limits on greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide under the auspices of the national Clean Air Act and amendments, laws dating back decades.

The major emissions control expense that all coal-fired power plant owners are grappling with is handling carbon dioxide. Hatfield's Ferry in 2008 released about 44 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air from burning coal.

Large industrial facilities, including coal-fired power plants, factories and refineries that emit at least 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually would be required to obtain permits covering the emissions.

"This is a common sense rule that is carefully tailored to apply to only the largest sources — those from sectors responsible for nearly 70 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions sources," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in announcing the proposed rule.

Environmentalists acknowledge it's very early regarding the proposed EPA regulations.

"The EPA rule means that Hatfield's Ferry would have to meet 'best available technology' criteria for carbon dioxide if the plant was physically modified in a way that increased emissions," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

Schaeffer said the EPA is still years away from determining what the best available technology will be. The most widely discussed method for dealing with carbon dioxide is known as carbon capture and sequestration, or burying carbon emissions, which is extremely expensive.

"To liquify the carbon dioxide and pump it into the ground is very costly. Plus it would take 15 percent of a plant's power output to do so," Scaccia said.

About the writer
Rick Stouffer can be reached via e-mail or at 412-320-7853.