Report: Brunner Island causing excessive smog; proposed changes not enough


York Haven's Brunner Island Power Plant may soon become the largest source of a smog-causing pollutant in Pennsylvania.

The Sierra Club, an environmental organization, released a comprehensive report Thursday detailing the plant's contributions to smog as they relate to nitrogen oxide emissions.

The report, which was created using research from Sonoma Technology Inc., uses 2011 data, the most recent year complete data is available, according to Sierra spokesman Tom Schuster.

According to the report, STI conducted an air quality modeling analysis that is consistent with federal Environmental Protection Agency protocol.

In 2011, Brunner Island, York's only coal-burning power plant, was the third-largest source of nitrogen oxide in the state.

The two plants that generated more — Keystone Generating Station in Armstrong County and Conemaugh Generating Station in New Florence — are both equipped with controls that can reduce nitrogen oxide emissions up to 90 percent, but the controls were not operating regularly or effectively, Schuster said. Brunner Island is the only large coal-burning power plant in Pennsylvania without the reduction controls or any other controls for nitrogen oxide pollution.

Brunner excluded: A Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection proposed rule, nicknamed "the smog rule" by Sierra Club, would place restrictions on the amount of nitrogen oxide emissions power plants are allowed to produce, but the proposal would exclude Brunner Island since it doesn't currently have the controls in place.

Brunner Island currently emits about three times more than the amount of pollution the proposal would allow other coal plants to produce, according to 2014 numbers reported to the EPA.

Schuster said his organization is urging Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's DEP, which previously amended the rule to lower the allowed emissions, to amend the rule so that it will also apply to Brunner Island.

(Click here to reach the full report.)

Wolf's press secretary, Jeff Sheridan, said Thursday the governor — whose Mount Wolf home is less than two miles from the plant — and the DEP are working directly with Brunner Island officials to reduce the plant's emissions.

Changes coming: Talen Energy, which owns Brunner Island, recently announced a $100 million project to turn the plant into a co-fire plant, allowing it to burn natural gas, coal or both. Schuster said that, while burning natural gas would greatly reduce the plant's nitrogen oxide emissions, the plant will just burn whatever is cheapest at the time, meaning there will be no guarantee its pollution rates will subside.

"If the rule (did apply to Brunner), the plant would have to install controls or switch almost entirely to natural gas," Schuster said.

Converting to natural gas would likely reduce Brunner Island's emissions to levels compliant with the proposed rule, Schuster said.

If the rule is accepted as currently written, Schuster said the York County plant would become the largest source of smog-causing pollution in Pennsylvania if it continued to operate at its current levels.

In an email response to the report, Talen spokesman Todd Martin pointed out that Brunner Island is in compliance with all applicable state and federal regulations and that it would be premature for the company to speculate on compliance while the DEP is still working to finalize its regulations.

Why it matters: Sierra Club's report shows Brunner Island's impact on the ozone in 2011 reached as far south as North Carolina and as far north as the Canadian border, with significance and distance dependent mainly on weather patterns.

The EPA's standards label any ozone impact greater than 0.75 parts per billion as significant.

Sonoma Technology's report showed that on July 20, 2011, a monitoring system in York registered Brunner's ozone impact at 10.6 ppb.

That same monitoring system found smog impacts on York from Brunner were significant on 50 days, with two days labeled as orange alerts, meaning residential children, elderly and those with asthma were urged to stay indoors for health reasons.

York County's air quality doesn't currently violate EPA standards, Schuster said, but the EPA is expected in October to lower the federal ozone standard — based on recent scientific studies of health impacts related to ozone pollution — and that would likely put York below the threshold.

— Reach David Weissman at