York Haven's Brunner Island agrees to stop burning coal

David Weissman
York Dispatch

The owner of Brunner Island Power Plant reached an agreement with a nationwide environmental group to significantly reduce its coal usage by 2023 and completely eliminate it before 2029.

Talen Energy and the Sierra Club jointly announced the agreement Wednesday, Feb. 14, which will become enforceable through a court-ordered consent decree expected to be filed in May.

For decades, the York Haven power plant operated exclusively as a coal-fired plant, but a multimillion-dollar renovation upgraded the facility to a co-fire plant, allowing it to burn coal or natural gas.

The Sierra Club has targeted Brunner Island for years as one of Pennsylvania's largest sources of the smog-causing pollutant nitrogen oxide.

Brunner Island

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection places restrictions on how much nitrogen oxide power plants can emit, but Brunner Island was excluded from the restrictions because it didn't have controls in place when the rule went into effect, according to Sierra Club spokesman Tom Schuster.

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Schuster said the group's settlement with Talen Energy essentially closes that loophole and requires Brunner Island to meet the standards imposed on the rest of the state's power plants.

Under the settlement, Brunner Island will burn only natural gas, not coal, during ozone season — May through September — beginning in 2023 and stop burning coal completely beginning in 2029.

Peak modeled 8-hour ozone impacts from Brunner Island power plant (represented by star).

Todd Martin, a spokesman for Talen Energy, said in a statement that the company is pleased to reach an agreement that eliminates the distraction of litigation "and enables Brunner Island to focus on the safe, efficient and reliable generation of electricity for our customers."

Martin added that the agreement allows the company to maximize the value and output of the station while giving it "a clear path forward to sustainable operation."

Schuster added that his group has seen improvements in the plant's nitrogen oxide emissions since becoming a co-fire plant and that this settlement ensures those improvements continue

The announcement comes on the heels of a federal judge's ruling in favor of Connecticut in its lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for not responding to its petition regarding Brunner Island.

Connecticut had filed a petition in June 2016 asking the EPA to rule that emissions from Brunner Island were significantly affecting its air quality.

More:Federal court: EPA must act on Brunner Island petition

After several months without a response, Connecticut filed a lawsuit, and the judge ruled Feb. 7 that the EPA must issue a final ruling on the petition within 60 days. Delaware filed a similar suit against the EPA for its petition from July 2016.

Schuster said his group had been working with the EPA to try to resolve its issues with Brunner Island under the Obama administration, but they never finalized a deal, and the new administration — under director Scott Pruitt — hasn't been responsive.

Brunner Island is also in the process of renewing its outdated wastewater discharge permit.

More:Settlement: Brunner Island must renew waste discharge permit

The Sierra Club was among a group of environmental activist groups that reached a settlement in January with the DEP requiring the department to take action on the expired permits of 10 coal-fired plants, including Brunner Island.

Any facility that discharges any type of pollution into a Pennsylvania body of water must have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which is required by the federal Clean Water Act to be renewed every five years.

Brunner Island last renewed its NPDES permit in 2006, and the permit should have expired in 2011, according to DEP records.

The DEP officially posted a revised draft permit for the plant on Jan. 20, beginning a 30-day public comment period that will end Feb. 20.

Joe Adams, DEP's south-central regional director, noted in a news release that this is the department's fourth attempt to update Brunner Island's permit because of changing federal guidelines.

Schuster said Talen Energy agreeing to reduce and ultimately halt its usage of coal will allay the Sierra Club's concerns over the plant's wastewater discharge, in addition to reducing its air pollution.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.