Cloud of Controversy Hangs Over Air Permit for New B.L. England Power Plant

Tom Johnson | April 14, 2016 | Energy & Environment
The DEP argues new gas-fired facility will release far less pollution than its coal-powered predecessor -- but ‘greens’ say it’s still too dirty

BL England Power Plant
The state has issued a draft air permit for a new 447-megawatt natural-gas power plant at the B.L. England generating station, which would replace an existing coal-fired unit at the facility in Upper Township.

The owner of the plant, which was once viewed as one of the dirtiest in the state, agreed to shut down the coal unit in an administrative consent order several years ago with the state Department of Environmental Protection that would resolve a series of air pollution violations at the facility. The closing has been repeatedly extended by the state, the most recent occurring in 2014.

The $90 million project is awash in controversy and litigation, mostly because the plant will get its fuel from a new 22-mile natural gas pipeline through parts of the Pinelands, a route opposed by four former governors and conservationists.

In switching to natural gas, the draft permit details significant reductions in permitted emissions from the plant, including pollutants that contribute to smog and global warming. But critics argue the plant will run more frequently than in the past, resulting in more pollution.

“This power plant will still be the largest polluter and greenhouse-gas emitter in this part of South Jersey,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, one of the environmental groups challenging the approval of the pipeline route through the 1 million-acre Pinelands preserve.

But the repowering of the plant is strongly backed by the Christie administration, which has aggressively promoted construction of new natural gas plants in the state. If built, the facility would be the fifth new gas-fired facility to be either built or pending in the state, with other units planned or operating in Newark, Woodbridge, Sewaren, and West Deptford.

[related]Business interests also support the project. “The need for the facility to stay online is crucial in providing significant electric reliability for our citizens and business owners,’’ said Michael Egenton, executive vice president of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce. “This is only exacerbated by the 2019 retirement of the Oyster Creek nuclear generating station.’’

Because of repeated delays in litigation, it is unclear when the plant, if permitted, will be operational. RC Cape May Holdings, LLC, which has owned the facility since 2007, did not return a call for comment.

The plant cannot begin operations until it receives DEP’s approval. It is required to shut down its remaining coal unit (the other has ceased operating) by May 1, 2017, according to Bob Considine, a spokesman for the DEP. The agency said it understands the facility is targeting a 2019-2020 timeframe.

“Repowering the plant with a very efficient, combined-cycle unit significantly reduces carbon dioxide emissions as compared to historical operation,’’ Considine said. According to the draft permit, allowable carbon equivalent emissions –greenhouse gases — would total 1.6 million tons a year, down 2,400 tons.

Tittel argued that the project is exploiting a regulatory loophole by repowering the facility, instead of building an entirely new facility. That means it does not have to meet the most up-to-date emission standards, he said.

“This will allow emissions from fine pollutants and chemicals like cadmium, arsenic, chromium and will release 129,000 pounds of lead per year,’’ Tittel said.

Beyond the specific project, many environmentalists oppose efforts to promote greater use of natural gas — a trend that is benefitting from a spate of new pipeline projects crisscrossing the state, many on lands previously preserved with taxpayers’ dollars. Instead, they are lobbying for an increased reliance on renewable energy to reduce pollution contributing to global climate change.

The public comment period on the draft permit ends in May. The department expects to make a final decision this summer, according to Considine.