Located at the northern tip of Cape May County, the B.L. England power plant, which some view as one of the dirtiest coal units in the state, isn’t shutting down as soon as expected.
Under an administrative consent order signed with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the agency agreed to extend the deadline by up to two years — allowing the plant to continue operating until possibly the spring of May 2017.
The agreement could give the owners of the plant, Rockland Capital LLC, more time to figure out how to pipe in natural gas to the coal-fired facility, allowing them to convert it to a more environmentally friendly fuel. The coal unit had been expected to shut down in May 2015 under a previous consent decree with the DEP.
A previous proposal to build a 22-mile long natural-gas pipeline through the heart of the Pinelands drew heated opposition from environmentalists and even four former governors — two Democrats and two Republicans. It failed to win approval from the Pinelands Commission, although with some new commissioners in place it still may approve the project.
The B.L England conversion, however, is strongly supported by the business community and some lawmakers who say it is a source of reliable energy that is essential to the region.
“Really the big factor is the reliability,’’ said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, in explaining the move to keep the plant open.
In its administrative consent order, the DEP said the B.L. England plant is strategically vital for energy reliability in the southern New Jersey region. The regional operator of the power grid concurred.
PJM Interconnection said shuttering the plant in 2015 would require significant transmission upgrades that could cost up to $150 million and would not be completed until 2016. That raises the possibility of brownouts and blackouts during peak load, usually during summer heat waves.
Hajna noted one of the facility’s coal units already has been shut down, and the other has a number of pollution controls, although not a modern as at some facilities. By 2018, the plant would provide 45 percent of the electricity in the Pinelands, according to the consent order.
The proposed conversion of the facility meshes with recommendations in the state’s Energy Easter Plan, which expands the use of natural gas to supply electricity to residents and businesses. But keeping the coal unit open — even for only two years — is in conflict with the Christie administration’s goal to reduce reliance on coal-fired electricity.
Rockland Capital LLC did not respond to a call for comment.
The latest consent decree for B.L. England rankles environmentalists, who argue that the state should uphold its original order to shut down the coal plant.
“How many times will they keep extending it?’’ asked Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, claiming the plant violates state standards for a range of pollutants.
Tittel noted the plant is represented by Wolf & Samson, the law firm of David Samson, a close political ally of Gov. Chris Christie. “This is the dirtiest plant in the state of New Jersey,’’ he said.
Bill Wolfe, the New Jersey director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, questioned whether the latest consent decree violated the state’s commitments to reduce air pollution in documents submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Shutting down B.L. England was cited in the plan as helping New Jersey to meet various air pollution goals.
The consent decree, however, stipulates penalties if the facility fails to achieve state standards for air pollution requirements. Rockland Capital also will spend $200,000 to fund fast-charging stations for electric vehicles at rest stops along the Atlantic City Expressway, Garden State Parkway, and New Jersey Turnpike, according to the consent order.