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Renovo plant: We need the whole story

It’s impossible to assess the gas-fired power plant planned for Renovo unless we can see the whole picture. If we are told only that it will contribute to our economic prosperity, then there would seem little reason not to give it our wholesale support. Unfortunately, the picture is a lot more complicated — and disturbing.

There are three major areas of concern.

The Site

The old railroad yards, where the plant will be located, have been declared a brownfield, a site of soil and groundwater contamination. I have read the Final Report prepared by Letterle, the environmental consulting and remediation firm that carried out a site investigation between July 2015 and February 2016, and its findings are alarming. A number of what they call Constituents of Concern have been identified in surface soil, subsurface soil, and groundwater. These include lead, antimony, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, manganese, and a number of other contaminants whose chemical names are too difficult to pronounce. Many of these are carcinogenic. All are found in concentrations greater than the acceptable standards.

The report concludes that remediation of the site is not necessary because a number of “Environmental Controls” will be imposed to contain the contamination. Nevertheless, the report also warns that construction and utility workers could be exposed if not properly protected. In the words of the report, “unacceptable risks to human health [exist] in relation to residual soil and groundwater contamination.”

Given this information, we need to be asking some serious questions. What are the Environmental Controls planned for use at the site? How effective will they be in containing the widespread contamination? What protections will be required for the hundreds of construction workers coming in to work, day in and day out, on contaminated ground? In addition, the heavy contamination at the site might be mobilized during construction. What is being done to ensure that the neighbors do not breathe in contaminated dust during that several-year time period? Restrictive covenants have been placed on the property with regard to the disturbance of soils in certain areas. Who is looking at that?

The decision to proceed with plant construction must not be taken lightly. Too much is at stake.

The Plant

The second major area of concern has to do with the pollutants coming from the plant.

Lots of folks believe that since power plants fired by natural gas are replacing those fired by coal, we are in the clear. But gas-fired power plants are far from clean. The main pollutants coming from these plants are nitrogen oxides: NOx, or “Knocks.” Not only do Knocks cause respiratory problems, but they also react with other substances in the air to produce particulate matter and ozone. Particulate matter and ozone cause the extensive list of negative health outcomes you hear at the end of a prescription drug commercial — shortness of breath, heart attacks, premature death; the list goes on. In short, Knocks are bad news for human health.

At this point you might be wondering, “So how bad is it?” First, natural gas power plants do not move — they just sit there and emit Knocks when they are operating. These Knocks emissions will linger in nearby communities, potentially leading to serious health problems for the people living near the plants. The Union of Concerned Scientists tells us that living beside a plant that emits, say, over 100 tons of Knocks per year is the rough equivalent of traveling 11 million miles in a diesel school bus, one of the most-polluting types of vehicles.

The Renovo plant is projected to emit over 300 tons of Knocks per year. That’s three times the amount considered dangerous by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But, you might say, the DEP has granted the plant its air permit, so its emission levels must be safe. Not necessarily. Emission levels can be “reduced” by a plant through use of Emission Reduction Credits (ERCs), compensating for one’s own high emission levels by buying “credits” from another plant that has succeeded in reducing its levels. The Renovo plant will be using ERCs. But that doesn’t mean zero emissions. Far from it. This plant, located right on the edge of town, will be emitting large amounts of damaging pollutants for 30 years.

According to the Clean Air Council, air pollutants that would be emitted from this facility are known to be harmful to human health and the environment. If built, the power plant would emit annually, in addition to its Knocks, over 200 tons of particulate matter, approximately 54 tons of sulfur oxides, and over 100 tons of volatile organic compounds, including formaldehyde, classified as a probable human carcinogen.

And the effects of these emissions will extend beyond Renovo itself. Knocks and volatile organic compounds react to form ground-level ozone (or smog), which can cause and aggravate lung diseases and other respiratory issues. The Northeast, including Pennsylvania, is already considered an “ozone transport region” due to significant ozone pollution.

The decision to proceed with plant construction must not be taken lightly. Renovo and its nearby communities neither need nor deserve 30 years of damaging pollutants.

The Planet

We know we have less than a decade to avoid the worst effects of climate change. And it’s clear: this will not happen if we continue investing in fossil fuels, along with the infrastructure that supports oil and gas operations. This past week, Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the U.N., cautioned that “we are coming to a point of no return,” calling this a “make-or-break year.” To avoid the worst climate impacts, he warned, “we need to abolish subsidies to fossil fuels. . . . When you’re on the verge of the abyss, you need to make sure your next step is in the right direction.”

Carbon dioxide levels world-wide are higher today than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years and are projected to continue to rise as we move away from Covid restrictions. Allowing a plant to come online that’s projected to become the fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter in the state of Pennsylvania is simply unconscionable.

At this time members of a group called Renovo Residents for a Healthy Environment are going door to door in Renovo to collect signatures on a petition asking DEP to reopen the comment period. Reopening the comment period would allow residents of a community that has been largely kept in the dark to get answers to its most pressing questions. It’s time to look at the big picture, and to do that we need to look closely at what’s been left out.

The decision to proceed with plant construction should be delayed until our questions are answered. The future of our communities and of the planet itself are at stake.

Karen Elias retired from teaching college English and is now a Lock Haven based freelance writer, activist and volunteer. She can be reached by email at eliaskaren100@gmail.com.

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