On July 31st, 2019 Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association announced a historic agreement to reduce toxic pollutants leaking from a power plant’s coal ash dumps into groundwater and the Susquehanna River, the largest Chesapeake Bay tributary.
The consent decree requires Talen Energy, owner of the Brunner Island Generating Station in York Haven, to close and excavate one ash pond, monitor and address leakage of pollutants from other waste sites, pay a $1 million civil penalty, and contribute an additional $100,000 to fund supplemental projects to reduce local water pollution, according to the agreement.
The Environmental Integrity Project represented the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, Waterkeeper Alliance, and PennEnvironment in an August 28, 2018, notice of intent to sue Talen Energy for violating the Clean Water Act, which triggered the involvement of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to reach today’s settlement agreement.
“The projects funded by this settlement will help ensure we are leaving the Lower Susquehanna River in better shape for future generations,” said Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, “And those of us who use and enjoy the Lower Susquehanna River can rest easier tonight knowing that concrete measures and timelines are in place to reduce toxic pollution in the river.”
The consent decree, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, requires Talen Energy to undertake significant and costly actions at multiple coal ash disposal areas, including addressing seeps, evaluating local water quality, and ensuring that any discharge fully complies with the Clean Water Act.
The Brunner Island coal-fired power plant, which opened in 1961, creates 442,000 tons of ash and other coal combustion wastes annually. In 2016, the plant added the capacity to burn natural gas in addition to coal, but its owners have indicated the facility will continue to burn coal for the next decade.
For years, the company has disposed of coal ash waste in seven unlined ponds and a lined landfill that cover a combined 367 acres on an island bordered on the east the Susquehanna River and on the west by tributaries called Black Gut Creek and by Conewago Creek.
Because most of the ash sites are often saturated with groundwater and lack liners to prevent leakage, pollutants – including arsenic (a carcinogen), boron (which can cause nausea and vomiting), and lithium have been seeping into groundwater, the Susquehanna River, and Black Gut Creek.
Six of the plant’s waste sites are now closed. However, the power company continues to dispose of ash in its lined landfill (which has also been leaking) and in an unlined ash pond called Ash Basin 6.
The consent decree requires Talen Energy to close Ash Basin 6 by June 1, 2019, and excavate all waste from the site by December 31, 2031. Talen must also submit a plan to Pennsylvania regulators that ensures the landfill’s liner and leachate collection system is working and that any leakage is directed to the plant’s wastewater plant and properly treated so that it complies with permitted pollution limits.
The agreement also directs the power company to monitor and address seepage from the other closed ash sites. The settlement resolves claims raised in both the August 2018 notice and our September 7, 2018, appeal of DEP’s Brunner Island Plant water discharge permit, which was renewed by the state on July 27, 2018.
Lawsuit Forces Technological Updates Protecting the River
Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper® teamed up with PennFuture in 2006 to reduce thermal impacts of the PPL Brunner Island (PPL-BI) power plant on the Susquehanna River. The plant withdraws from the Susquehanna and later discharges up to 795 million gallons of once-through condenser cooling water each day. That uncooled wastewater reached temperatures as high as 123 degrees (F) in the discharge channel.
By 2004, DEP biologists had determined that PPL-BI’s cooling water discharge was having harmful effects on the river s biological community for three miles below the plant. Negotiations between DEP and PPL-BI had dragged on for about two years until, on January 9, 2006, PennFuture filed a Notice of Intent to Sue on behalf of Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper® against PPL-BI under the federal Clean Water Act for temperature violations. After intensified negotiations, on March 27, 2006, PPL-BI and DEP entered into a Consent Order and Agreement that was incorporated into a Stipulated Settlement filed before the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania at No. 202 M.D. 2006 on that same date. The Commonwealth Court adopted the Stipulated Settlement as an Order of the Court on March 30, 2006.
In the Stipulated Settlement, PPL-BI agreed not to contest certain effluent limitations and other conditions that DEP would incorporate into a revised NPDES discharge permit. The most important of these conditions requires the company to install draft mechanical cooling structures at the Brunner Island plant by December 31, 2009, and to run the full volume of condenser cooling water through those cooling structures from March 1 through November 30.
DEP released a draft of the revised NPDES permit in June 2006. Comments were submitted to DEP on the draft permit on July 10, 2006. While applauding PPL-BI s commitment to add cooling technology to a plant built in the 1960s, the comments object to a number of the final temperature limitations and the manner in which they were derived.
This settlement is historic for the Susquehanna and a national model for stopping thermal water pollution from older power plants. In the settlement, PPLcommitted $120 million to construct cooling structures to reduce the temperature of the more than 600 million gallons of cooling water it discharges each day into the Susquehanna River, which is expected to alleviate the violations of the law. The violations had caused several large fish kills and impairment of fish habitat. PPL will not only make the large investments to stop the problem, but will pay the fines assessed by DEP directly to the Lancaster and York County Conservation Districts for measures to protect streams in the lower Susquehanna watershed.