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Renovo gas-fired power plant clears hurdle

But environmental groups appeal air quality permit

RENOVO — A long-standing project in the abandoned railyard in this mountain community that seeks to burn natural gas to generate electricity is taking some big steps forward.

But not without objections.

Renovo Energy Center, as the proposed $1.5 billion investment is known, recently received an air quality permit from the Pennsylvania Depeartment of Environmental Protection (DEP) in clearing a significant environmental regulatory hurdle to build a two-unit combustion turbine powered by natural gas and employing the latest emissions control technology to produce electricity for Pennsylvania and New York State. It comes after DEP approved the project’s construction and develoment plans in late April.

However, the Clean Air Council, PennFuture, and the Center for Biological Diversity have appealed the air quality permit, arguing that it will allow the Bechtel Corp. power plant to “emit hundreds of tons of noxious pollutants annually and more greenhouse gases than the City of Pittsburgh.”

Local, county and company officials dispute that.

A letter in support of the project and signed by county, borough and state officials, the group said REC’s two-unit, Natural Gas Combined Cycle (NGCC) project will “use the latest, most advanced combustion turbine and emissions-control technology available today to deliver a clean source of base load electricity. Base load capacity is a crucial component in enabling the further buildout of intermittent renewable generation, such as solar and wind.”

Further, they said REC will “displace existing electrical generation from older, less efficient, and higher emitting sources in the… electrical grid shortly after coming online, continuing the trend seen between 2005 and 2017.

“It is our understanding that the state has seen a drop of 50 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions during this time frame, further confirming the importance and key role of natural gas. REC’s operations will be a positive factor in this regard and can be expected to actually help to improve the air quality as PA continues to shift more generation away from these older and higher emitting sources,” said the group that includes Clinton County Economic Partnership, President Mike Flanagan; Renovo Mayor Tommy Tarantella; Council President Ann Tarantella; Renovo Community Trade Association President Ernie Peterson; Clinton County Commissioners Miles Kessinger, Jeff Snyder and Angela Harding; state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-76th, and state Sen. Cris Dush, R-25th.

But the opposition believes the DEP has not done proper due diligence in reviewing the plans.

“Despite DEP recognizing that Renovo is an environmental justice community, DEP failed to do the outreach required to community members before issuing the permit for one of the most-polluting facilities in Pennsylvania. The groups object to the permit on those grounds as well as the grounds that the permit allows unlawful levels of air pollution, that DEP ignored the costs to society in issuing the permit, and based on several other deficiencies spelled out in the Notice of Appeal. All told, pollution from the power plant would likely kill dozens of people over the course of the plant’s life and cost several billion dollars in impacts to health and communities. The power plant is being developed by Bechtel Corporation, a Virginia-based multinational engineering corporation,” the three organizations said in statements released through the Clean Air Council.

“Our members are deeply concerned about the very high levels of harmful air pollution from Bechtel’s enormous proposed power plant and the negative health effects it could have on our families and friends,” said Sue Cannon with Renovo Residents for a Healthy Environment. This power plant is unwanted, unnecessary, and will provide no benefits to residents — only burdens. When our society is finally starting to move away from dirty fossil fuels, it is unconscionable for DEP to permit a massive new gas-burning plant without even weighing the costs to the health of nearby residents and the impact on local ecology,” said Joseph Otis Minott, Executive Director and Chief Counsel of Clean Air Council. “Renovo deserves better, we all deserve better. DEP must pull this unlawful permit,” the organizations claimed.

“Building a new plant to ship energy derived from fracked gas to out-of-state customers is entirely contrary to the goal of moving towards the clean energy economy Pennsylvanians deserve,” said Jessica O’Neill, senior attorney at PennFuture. “DEP needs to take seriously its obligations under Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment, as well as its obligations to consider and work to minimize the climate change implications of electrical power generation. Since renewable energy like wind and solar is cheaper and cleaner than burning fracked gas, this power plant makes no sense,” said Robert Ukeiley, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope this challenge serves as a wake up call to DEP to do what’s right,” they concluded.

The group of area officials have been quick to react, releasing a lengthy statement on Friday.

“There have recently been some “negative” comments about the planned Renovo Energy Center project in various media and social media outlets. Some environmental-related groups have decided to appeal the recent action by the state Department of Environmental Protection to issue a plan approval,” the group said. “We, the undersigned, feel it is important to relay some facts about the project and to reiterate our strong support:

–There has been a variety of claims that REC’s emissions will lead to a deterioration in the state’s air quality, all of which assume that when a new power plant is constructed there are no corresponding retirements of existing generation units. Given the prolonged, flat trend in electrical demand, coupled with the current operation of significantly less efficient plants, it is expected that REC will displace existing electrical generation from older, less efficient, and higher emitting sources in the PJM electrical grid shortly after coming online, continuing the trend seen between 2005 and 2017. It is our understanding that the state has seen a drop of 50 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions during this time frame, further confirming the importance and key role of natural gas. REC’s operations will be a positive factor in this regard and can be expected to actually help to improve the air quality as Pennsylvania continues to shift more generation away from these older and higher emitting sources.

–The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection reviewed the REC air quality permit plan for almost two years, and subsequently approved the permit with the plan approval. We trust that the DEP professionals properly reviewed all laws applicable to building power plants, with a focus on protecting citizens and the environment.

–REC is committed to cleaning up and repurposing a long-standing vacant, brownfield site with existing groundwater and soil contamination.

–In conjunction with the power plant, REC will conduct restoration projects at two local streams – Kettle Creek Restoration Project and the Brewery Run Wetland Enhancement Project.

–With a total installed cost of approximately $750 million per unit ($1.5 billion), REC will not only provide electricity for the regional grid but will also be an economic engine for Renovo and Clinton County. REC will provide positive local impacts including expanding Renovo’s tax base, and generating revenue for local contractors and businesses, service providers, hotels and restaurants. REC will contribute millions of dollars to the local economy during construction and operation.

–The project will be subject to property taxes from the three local taxing authorities (Renovo Borough, Clinton County and the Keystone Central School District) during both its construction and operation. The project was eligible for a tax abatement program, but REC has committed to pay its full share of all such taxes.

–REC held two open houses to educate the local community on the pros and cons of locating the power plant in the Industrial Park and on what to expect before, during and after construction. Each such meeting was announced by an informative newsletter inviting all borough residents to attend, with presentations by the development team and the construction contractor at each event. The DEP also participated in the second open house, presenting the results of the air permit application and approval process, and answering any questions in this regard. The Borough of Renovo was well represented by its elected officials and community members, and by all accounts both events reflected strong community support for the project. Additional such meetings will be conducted prior to the start of construction. REC also formed a focus group of 14 individuals to hear and address any concerns or questions. REC is also committed to provide funding in support of several borough initiatives.

The group countered the claim that DEP has not done its job assessing REC.

“We believe that REC has done its due diligence on this project for the last six years, and DEP professionals conducted a thorough air quality permit review and final approval process. This project has been very transparent from the beginning and REC has been communicating with key stakeholders, such as Renovo Borough and local, county and state officials, from day one. We look forward to the day when construction begins on this important project,” they said.

According to a review of the regulatory process, the appeal does not mean REC and Bechtel must stop all work related to the power plant.

DEP’s Williamsport regional office, through Megan Lehman, community relations coordinator, issued a statement Friday afternoon as follows:

“DEP’s Air Quality Program issued the plan approval for the proposed Renovo Energy Center on April 29. During the formal public comment period, DEP received comments from 59 individuals and organizations and responded to each comment in a 48-page comment response document:

“The issued plan approval gives Renovo Energy Center legal authority to construct and temporarily operate until an air quality operating permit is issued. Prior to that, REC must demonstrate that all sources of air emissions at the facility are in compliance with the emission limits in the plan approval. This is typically achieved through stack testing, inspections, and compliance reporting. DEP will also need to verify that the facility was constructed and is operating in accordance with the terms and conditions of the plan approval. REC will be also required to submit an air quality permit application after commencement of operation of all sources at the facility. Other minor permits/authorizations may also be required prior to completion of the facility.

“On May 26, within the statutory 30-day appeal period, an appeal was filed before the Environmental Hearing Board by the Clean Air Council and two other environmental organizations challenging DEP’s issued approval. This does not prohibit the applicant from proceeding with the project if they choose to do so while the appeal is pending. The appeal process is essentially a formal legal proceeding that will result in an adjudication by an administrative law judge. The adjudication will resolve the legal issues raised by the parties, and it may be appealed to Commonwealth Court.”

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