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Talen Energy expected to pay $1 million penalty over coal ash pollution John Pavoncello, 717-505-5449/@Jpavoncello

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YORK HAVEN — Talen Energy, owner of Brunner Island in York Haven, is expected to pay the largest fine associated with coal ash pollution in the state's history after reaching a settlement with four environmental groups.

The Environmental Integrity Project, which represents three other environmental groups, on Wednesday filed a consent decree in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, announced the groups' representatives.

Once the agreement is finalized, the company that owns the coal-fired electric plant would have to pay a $1 million penalty, close and excavate one ash pond and pay an additional $100,000 to fund water pollution-reduction projects.

"We hope our communities will feel empowered to use the river recreationally knowing the river is safe," said Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna riverkeeper. "The river is a shared resource, and those who pollute it must be held accountable. It's time to clean up the mess they left behind."

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The groups filed an intent to sue Talen Energy for violating the Clean Water Act in August 2018, which garnered the attention of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which helped work out the settlement.

Brunner Island has disposed of coal ash waste in seven unlined ponds and one lined landfill for years, the environmental groups contend. The area covers 367 acres on an island bordered by the Susquehanna River.

The disposal sites, which often are saturated with groundwater and lack protection against the leakage of dangerous pollutants such as arsenic, boron and lithium, have leaked into the Susquehanna Rivera and Black Gut Creek.

As a result, the water has been contaminated with chemicals that are dangerous to both humans and wildlife. The pollution has also affected the Chesapeake Bay, environmentalists say.

The civil penalty marks the largest of its kind in state history. In addition to the financial penalties and closing and excavating the ash pool known as Ash Basin 6, Talen will have to better monitor water quality and seepage going forward.

“Today’s agreement will reduce the impact of toxic coal ash pollution on ground and surface waters, better control the plant’s wastewater discharges, ensure discharge of heated water is protective of aquatic life, and improve water quality for the Lower Susquehanna River and its tributaries,” said Lisa Hallowell, senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project.

The three local environmental groups represented by the Environmental Integrity Project are the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, the Waterkeeper Alliance and PennEnvironment.

The environmental groups praised Talen Energy, which released a statement Wednesday, for coming to the table to avoid lengthy litigation. 

“We are pleased to have reached agreement and appreciate the hard work and collaborative efforts of PADEP, EIP and all stakeholders to resolve this matter," said Debra Raggio, Talen's senior vice president for regulatory and external affairs. "Talen is committed to complying with all environmental regulations and will continue to focus on the safe, efficient and reliable operation of our plants."

Talen must close Ash Basin 6 by June 1, under the agreement. It will excavate all waste from the site by Dec. 31, 2031. The company will also submit a plan to state regulators to ensure it is working to prevent leakage and complies with pollution limits.

Brunner Island has created 442,000 tons of ash and other coal combustion waste annually since opening in 1961, environmentalists said.

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Talen has disputed some of the numbers cited by the environmental groups. It contends the plant only created 97,000 tons of coal waste last year, 90% of which was for "beneficial use." 

The plant in 2016 announced it would burn natural gas in addition to coal, eventually phasing out coal in the next decade.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD. 

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