Is a Natural-Gas Power Plant in the Works for the Musconetcong River?

Tom Johnson | June 14, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Preliminary discussions between project developer and state and local officials explore building the plant on the state’s top trout stream

The Musconetcong River
A proposal to build a natural-gas power plant on the site of a former paper mill in Holland Township on the Musconetcong River is being discussed by the project developer and local and state officials.

The township planning board had an informal meeting Monday regarding the proposal from Phoenix Energy Center LLC, a project that has not yet applied for the key environmental and other permits it will need to move forward.

Even so, the project has raised concerns among conservationists who question locating a power plant along the river, one of the few in New Jersey classified as a Category One (C1) stream — the designation given to the most pristine waters in the state.

Former site of Fibermark Paper Mill on Musconetcong River
The 25-acre site is also located in the preservation area of the New Jersey Highlands, although the company is planning to seek an exemption under rules that might allow it to redevelop the former site of the Fibermark Paper Mill.

Natural-gas explodes

Cheap natural-gas supplies extracted from the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania have helped fuel a spate of new gas-fired power plants in New Jersey in recent years. Four new generating units are coming online; two more are pending.

Natural gas now is the predominant way of producing electricity for homes and businesses in the state, topping nuclear power. It also has led to a rapid expansion of gas pipelines, a trend met with fierce opposition from local communities and environmentalists.

Phoenix Energy Center could not be reached for comment. Holland Township, county, and state officials were tightlipped about the project.

“They approached us a couple of weeks ago,’’ said Holland Township Mayor Dan Bush, who attended the planning board meeting. “This was the first meeting. It was a very preliminary discussion.’’

Bush declined to comment on specifics of the project, saying he had yet to see a site plan. “At this point, Holland Township is not condoning anything.’’

The company also has met with officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection, according to Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the agency, but still needs to obtain a number of environmental permits, including those allowing water withdrawals from the location.

The power plant on the trout stream

To conservationists, the idea of putting a 660-megawatt power plant on the Musconetcong, widely recognized as the state’s top trout stream, defies logic. Portions of the waterway also have been designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.

“It’s not the place for a 600-megawatt power plant,’’ said Elliott Ruga, policy director for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. “It is hugely out of scale for this area, one of the most pristine parts of New Jersey, straddling a quiet agricultural community.’’

Probably one of the biggest hurdles facing the project is the Musconetcong’s designation as a C1 stream, a classification that includes an anti-degradation policy to protect the water from any deterioration in quality, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Typically, power plants require huge amounts of water, which is then discharged at higher temperatures into a nearby waterway. “It’s a C1 stream,’’ Tittel said. “There can’t be any measurable change in water quality.’’

At the planning board meeting, consultants for the company indicated the plant would withdraw up to 5.4 million gallons of water a day from wells or from the river, and discharge more than 1.5 million gallons into the river daily, according to Tittel, who was at the meeting.

There is a nearby pipeline belonging to Elizabethtown Gas that might supply the fuel needed to run the plant, although that connection could pose a problem. Elizabethtown is one of the sponsors of the controversial PennEast pipeline, a 120-mile conduit between Luzerne County, PA, that would end in Mercer County. Holland Township opposes the pipeline.