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EPA Ruling Could Shutter W. Pa Power Plant Ahead of Schedule

Keystone Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Armstrong County, about 50 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

by Ethan Dodd, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
January 26, 2023

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that a western Pennsylvania power plant can no longer dump toxic coal ash into unlined ponds, a ruling that could close the plant before its planned retirement in 2028.

Along with coal-powered plants in Texas, Arizona, Michigan, and North Dakota, Keystone-Conemaugh Projects, LLC staved off upgrading its coal ash disposal at its plant in New Florence, Pa., on the Conemaugh River by claiming it was up to snuff with Obama-era rules.

The EPA thought otherwise on Tuesday, finding potential release of coal ash toxins at all six sites among other rule violations, according to the Sierra Club.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal when water is turned into steam to spin turbines and generate electricity. It contains contaminants such as mercury and arsenic that can poison water for drinking and recreation, which poses a problem for power plants that need water access but also need to store their waste.

In 2015, the EPA established safeguards against coal ash heaps after large spills in Tennessee and North Carolina caused widespread environmental and economic damage to nearby waterways and properties. However, implementing these rules has taken years and is still ongoing.

While noting the former Trump administration was slow to enforce deadlines, “part of the reason for the delay is kind of built into the rule itself,” said Tom Schuster, who directs Pennsylvania’s chapter of the environmental advocacy group Sierra Club.

The EPA allowed plants to apply for an “alternate liner demonstration,” which could save companies from having to invest in new synthetic liners, like the impermeable plastic barriers at landfills that keep toxic waste from leaking into the water supply.

However, coal ash is often stored in what amounts to “a hole in the ground,” he said. Referred to as impoundments, “the ones in Conemaugh, for instance, are basically dirt liners.”

These companies effectively argued “their system of containing the pollutants from the coal ash is going to be just as good as the current standards,” Schuster explained. With Tuesday’s ruling, “EPA is saying no, it’s not.” 

In its proposed determination against Conemaugh, not only did the EPA find “potential release from the impoundment” and its groundwater monitoring system lacking, the federal agency didn’t buy the company’s excuses.

“The power plant tried to explain that away [the potential coal ash release] by saying that it [wasn’t] from their impoundments,” but that it came from gypsum “that they were hauling around in trucks and spilling,” Schuster said.

 “Even if it is true … the end result is you are contaminating the groundwater,” which is a violation of EPA’s coal ash rules, he continued.

The proposed decision moves the power plant closer to shutting down, which Keystone-Conemaugh already promised to do by 2028 — along with its sister plant 50 miles away in Shelocta, Indiana County – rather than comply with stricter wastewater regulations, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Conemaugh can submit comments to try to delay the regulatory action, but if the EPA’s final decision is the same, Schuster said the plant will have two options: either stop depositing new coal ash in their four impoundments within 135 days, or change.

“They have to show that they have fixed the deficiencies that led for them to get denied in the first place,” by installing a new groundwater monitoring system and stopping their coal ash release, Schuster said, which are “tall orders for a plant going to retire by 2028.”

“If this proposal were to stand as a practical economic matter,” he thought the plant would “probably end up retiring earlier than that.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.