Brunner Island

For the first time, the Brunner Island coal-fired power plant, long-criticized for polluting Lancaster County air, has started using natural gas as part of a $100 million project.

The 56-year-old Talen Energy facility on the banks of the Susquehanna River in York County did not say how much coal the natural gas is replacing or what effect it would have on the plant’s emissions.

The switch to the relatively cleaner fuel comes amid rising pressure on the power plant — which produces enough electricity to power about 1 million homes — to cut down on air pollutants.

In the last few months, both Delaware and Connecticut have petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to limit Brunner Island’s nitrogen oxide emissions that form smog because, they say, emissions blowing from the plant are causing bad air there.

And three U.S. Congressmen and 18 local officials from southeastern Pennsylvania have asked EPA to close a loophole that has prevented Brunner Island from having to install nitrogen-oxide controls that most other coal-fired plants in the U.S. have had to.

An EPA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said Monday afternoon that the agency is still reviewing the petitions.

Connecticut, in its “Good Neighbor” petition to EPA, claims Brunner Island is the largest power plant in the northeastern United States that lacks effective pollution controls for nitrogen oxides. The plant produces enough electricity to power about 1 million homes.

The state Department of Environmental Protection confirmed that Brunner Island began using natural gas in its Unit 3 in the fall. The other two units are expected to start burning natural gas by June, said spokesman John Repetz.

A 4-mile pipeline carries the natural gas to the plant. Talen has not said how much it will use natrual gas as opposed to coal.

Talen spokesman Todd Martin refused to disclose if Brunner Island had begun using natural gas and to what extent. “We do not discuss our operating strategy as it could disadvantage the company in the competitive energy market,” Martin said.

Martin also said it would be “premature” to discuss if burning gas was reducing nitrogen oxide emissions at the plant.

DEP’s Repetz said the agency does not yet have records on how much natural gas has been used at the plant and differences in outputs of various emissions.

Burning natural gas instead of or combined with coal may end up reducing some pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, said Tom Schuster, the Sierra Club’s senior campaign representative in Pennsylvania.

But, longterm, the utility will be burning whatever fuel source is cheapest, said Schuster. That is why the Sierra Club has lobbied so hard to get the so-called “Brunner Island loophole” removed.

“Our problem is that without having the strong limits in place that the other coal plants have, that it may not actually improve air quality.”

The loophole that has been the focus of so much criticism occurred when Pennsylvania adopted new air pollution controls to reduce smog based on “reasonably available control technology.”

Every coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania except Brunner Island had modern equipment installed years ago to reduce nitrogen oxides and now will have to use them even more of the time power is being produced.

But since Brunner Island never installed such equipment, they were placed in a separate category with less-stringent requirements for reducing nitrogen oxides.

The Sierra Club accuses Brunner Island of being the largest source of nitrogen oxides on the Eastern Seaboard.

When Talen announced its retrofit project at Brunner Island in 2015, there was speculation it was doing so to prepare the plant for then President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan that would require more reductions of global-warming gases such as carbon dioxide at coal-fired power plants.

But the plan is now held up in the courts and President Donald Trump has vowed to scuttle the plan.

Talen Energy has said that Brunner Island meets all state emissions regulations required of it. And some $800 million has been poured into pollution upgrades to conform to new limits on mercury, acid rain and other air toxins, the utility points out.

After Delaware and Connecticut filed petitions with EPA over Brunner Island, a Delaware-based group, called the Center for Energy Competitiveness filed a response with EPA, defending the plant against removal of the loophole.

Over-dependence on natural gas, the group said, could lead to blackouts in severe winters when gas is in tight supply. The group also maintained that Delaware’s main source of ozone pollution is automobiles, not emissions blowing in from Brunner Island.