The state yesterday granted an air permit to a new 447-megawatt natural-gas power plant, eliminating a significant regulatory hurdle to converting the B.L. England power facility in Upper Township from coal.
The approval came despite strong opposition from environmentalists, who say the plant is no longer needed and should be shuttered. But concerns about increased air pollution are only part of the problem for opponents. The project is also embroiled in litigation because the natural gas will be supplied to the facility via a new 22-mile pipeline through the Pinelands.
If the project moves forward, however, it would continue a trend to place increased emphasis on natural gas as the fuel to provide electricity to homes and businesses, a policy strongly endorsed by the Christie administration. B.L. England is the fifth new gas power plant either built or pending in the state since the governor took office.
In awarding the permit, the DEP said the health risks associated with the new power plant are predicted to be negligible. The agency also said the more efficient gas unit would reduce air pollutants from the facility by more than half, including carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.
Compared to the old air permit, nitrogen oxide emissions, a source of smog, will fall by 98 percent; sulfur dioxide emissions, which cause acid rain, and hazardous air pollutants will both drop by more than 99 percent, according to the DEP. The owner of the plant is RC Cape May Holdings, LLC, which has owned the facility since 2007.
But environmentalists argued that harmful emissions would increase because the facility will run more frequently than it has in recent years, when it mainly operated as a so-called peaking unit, running only at times of high electricity demand.
“This power plant is a trifecta of dirty energy — it will worsen global warming; it’s the rationale for the massive Pinelands pipeline; and it will worsen air pollution,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.
“The DEP has just rubberstamped a dirty deal for dirty air,’’ added Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, which had sued to shut down the old coal unit nearly a decade ago. Under an administrative consent order signed with the DEP, the owner of the plant agreed to shut the facility to resolve a number of air pollution violations, but that closing has been extended repeatedly by the state.
One of the chief criticisms of extending the plant’s operation focuses on an interpretation that the new unit is a repowering of the old generating facility, a determination that allows the facility to avoid having to install the most up-to-date pollution controls.
In its response to comments, DEP said significant modifications have been made to the permit governing the operation of the various boilers used to power the units.
The repowered plant would be able to emit up to 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, making it the biggest polluting power plant in South Jersey for global warming pollution, environmentalists said.
The project still faces obstacles before becoming a reality, including litigation filed trying to block the pipeline by both the Sierra Club, Environment New Jersey, and former Govs. Brendan Byrne, Christine Whitman, and Jim Florio.