Jersey City power plant cleans up emissions but can't escape activists' wrath

Part of an occasional series on environmental justice issues.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- A decade after U.S. EPA accused the Newark-based Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) of major air pollution violations at a coal-fired power plant here, both sides now point to the facility as an environmental success story.

But walking along a short stretch of Duffield Avenue just outside the gates of the Hudson generating station last week, Jersey City environmental activist and independent filmmaker R.J. Harper can only see all that is wrong with the 43-year-old plant.

Harper notes the distinct smell of gas in the air near a pipeline that is emblazoned with PSEG's logo. He points out another pipe, located outside the facility's flimsy chain link fence and labeled "liquid petroleum," and wonders how easy of a target it is for a would-be terrorist.

But mostly he worries about the mountain of coal that is used to feed one of the plant's generators at a pace of about 3,500 tons a day.


Last week, Hudson's coal pile measured about 40 feet at its highest point and filled a lot the size of two football fields. Looking at it from the street, only the tops of Manhattan's tallest skyscrapers could be seen over the mound.

Harper has mixed feelings about PSEG's $700 million in upgrades at the Hudson facility. While the money has bought air pollution reductions that will benefit his community, the company's investment also ensures that he and his neighbors will be living next to that coal pile for decades to come.

"This is a technology that has seen its day but they have done a patchwork to keep it going in this era," Harper said while snapping pictures of the coal pile and the pool of black water evaporating in the sun next to it.

Harper wonders what other health effects the dark mound is having on his neighbors, such as the residents of the Section 8 housing just a few hundred yards away on the other side of St. Peters Cemetery.

"There's still a long way to go for really protecting the health of the community," he said.

It is a concern shared by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which, through its Climate Justice Initiative, is trying to highlight how the country's 431 coal power plants have a disproportionate impact on minority and low income communities.

A new report from the organization entitled "Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People" is due out at the end of this month. The report grades and ranks plants based on various measures related to environmental justice.

The NAACP is currently holding events in a dozen cities with coal plants that rank among the worst offenders. One of those events will take place in Jersey City to bring attention to the Hudson generating station, which was ranked as the second worst facility for environmental justice concerns behind Edison International's Crawford generating station in Crawford, Ill.

According to statistics cited by the NAACP, some 309,000 residents live within 3 miles of the Jersey City facility and three-quarters of them are Latino, Asian or African American. On average, those residents live on a $21,596 annual income that is 20 percent below the state average.

Along with race and income of residents, the NAACP based its environmental justice scoring matrix on acid gas emissions from the plant. Data from 2005 to 2008 put Hudson's average yearly sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions total of those acid gases at a little over 18,000 tons.

But officials at PSEG, a $29 billion company with a variety of coal, gas, nuclear and solar generating stations, said last week the NAACP report does not reflect the reality of what has taken place at the Hudson facility.

That is because these days, the Hudson generating station is a very different facility.

Cooperating with regulators

It is easy to spot the upgrades at the Hudson site.

Most components of the back-end technology project -- so named because the various systems all go to work after the coal is burned -- have been painted sky blue and stand in stark contrast to the older, rusting sections of the plant.

"You used to look at our smoke stack and see a haze come out of it," said engineer Nick Yonnone, an operations supervisor, during a tour of the facility last week. "We've knocked it down to a point where if it's a warm day you can't see anything coming out of our stack."

The project dates back to a state and federal investigation in 2000 that found two of PSEG's coal plants -- the Jersey City plant and another in Hamilton -- had been modified without installing pollution controls and obtaining permits required by the Clean Air Act's New Source Review program. The case never reached a courtroom because PSEG and federal and state officials came to an agreement in 2002 to install new emissions controls over a 10 year period.

But after it became clear that PSEG was falling short of reaching some of the milestones of the settlement, the company and the federal government negotiated a new agreement in 2006 that hit the company with $6 million in fines, added stricter penalties and instituted more aggressive cleanup targets at both facilities (Greenwire, Nov. 30, 2006).

The upgrades that were eventually made at Hudson nearly doubled the size of the plant's footprint and addressed four specific pollution concerns.

Dry scrubbers and selective catalytic reduction units were installed to lower emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Activated carbon injection units were added to control toxic mercury emissions. And a pulse jet fabric filter, more commonly known as a "bag house," was installed to reduce the release of particulate matter, a blend of ordinary dust and fine soot that can cause breathing problems and other ailments at high enough levels.

With the new technologies in place, officials at the facility said last week the Hudson station has reduced its emissions of all four monitored substances by at least 90 percent. Those numbers coincide with emissions data from the last decade reported by U.S. EPA that show air releases at the plant peaking in 2005 and then dropping off significantly.

Gaetano Lavigna, who serves as head of EPA Region 2's air compliance branch, said last week that the Hudson facility is now one of the cleanest coal plants in New Jersey. He even praised the company for working with, not against, EPA in the enforcement proceedings.

"When we look at other companies we've gone after they were probably one of the most cooperative," Lavigna said.

'Positive from every perspective'

If there's a face of the change that has taken place at the Hudson generating station it is plant manager James Pfenningwerth.

With 33 years of experience in the power industry, Pfenningwerth, 56, was hired in early 2009 to run the Hudson generating station in large part because of the work he had done to commission a plant in Iowa that has been touted as one of the country's cleanest coal-burning facilities.

Pfenningwerth, a burly western Pennsylvania native who has a safety helmet decorated with the Pittsburgh Steelers logo, is comfortable with massive machinery but less at ease sitting for an interview.

Nonetheless, Pfenningwerth said he understands his job requires that he be both an engineer and something of a PR specialist.

"I've been focusing on getting the plant running first," he said, referring to the completion of the back-end technology project. But Pfenningwerth said he fully intends to be spending more time in the community talking about the changes at the station.

When he does go out into the Jersey City community, Pat Evangelista, who the EPA Region 2 office that handles environmental justice issues, said he will have a good story to tell about the Hudson station.

"The end result was positive from every perspective," Evangelista said. "It's a compliance success story within an environmental justice community. It's a win-win from both perspectives."

In some ways, convincing activists like Harper that the coal plant isn't a danger to the community may be a tougher task than the back-end technology project.

If PSEG really wanted to be a good neighbor, Harper said, it could have tried to lower emissions before EPA got involved or done more to meet the goals of the 2002 settlement.

But others in the community say they simply want to know more about the risks they face from living near the Hudson generating station.

Susan Curry, an organizer with the Jersey City group Parents and Communities United for Education, said the scariest part of living near the plant is not knowing what to worry about.

"We're just living day to day," Curry said during an interview in her two-room apartment in downtown Jersey City last week. "We don't know how this plant is going to affect the air we breathe and the water we drink. We don't have the knowledge of how this affects the residents.

She said PSEG never misses the opportunity to send a bill and wonders why the company could not do more to try to provide health screenings for people who live near the plant or simply pay for an outside group to conduct a study on environmental and health impacts on the community.

"We should get some plant information on the effects of the coal and something to tell us they're doing everything they can to make it safe, be community friendly," Curry said.

Eric Svenson, PSEG's vice president of environmental health and safety, said that the inclusion of the Hudson plant on the NAACP's environmental justice list is clearly a sign that the company has to do a better job of outreach to the local and national community.

"When you're in this business you try to have an ear for everyone and it's in our interest to try to address those concerns," Svenson said.

Old emissions data

Rather than dismissing the NAACP report, Svenson welcomed it.

"We need voices out there advocating for cleaning up power plants, especially the ones that have not put the controls on," Svenson said. "And believe me, there are so many plants out in the Midwest and Southeast who have not put controls on and are lobbying Congress to stop EPA in its tracks."

There are major policy debates currently revolving around EPA's Transport Rule, which was released yesterday and sets state-by-state limits on soot- and smog-forming emissions that are carried by wind across state lines (Greenwire, July 7), and the proposed Utility MACT standards, which will force every coal plant in the country to meet limits on emissions of mercury, acid gases and other toxic chemicals.

PSEG has advocated that EPA institute the strongest possible standards for both rules. That is partly because after the PSEG spent more than $1.3 billion on its back-end technology effort at its two New Jersey coal plants, the company would likely benefit from any rule that would force competitors to spend huge sums to upgrade their plants.

But Svenson said the company also fundamentally believes that strong rules make good public policy as well as good business sense.

"We don't see a train wreck from that type of regulation," Svenson said. "We are a company that is out there right in the forefront saying do it, get it done."

Svenson's only issue with the NAACP report is that it is based partly on six-year-old data.

"They need to be more attentive to the quality of data they are using," he said, "so they can't be discredited in the public policy debate."

NAACP Climate Justice Initiative director Jacqueline Patterson, who is traveling the country as part of the effort to highlight the poorest performing coal power plants, said last week her group is already working to update the "Coal Blooded" report with the latest pollution statistics.

But Patterson said that given the Hudson generating station's history and the fact that it won't be closing soon, it is fair to highlight the plant and educate the local community about the dangers of coal-fired power and the disproportionate effect it has on minorities.

"It's great that they've done the upgrades in terms of levels of emissions," Patterson said. But "it's a question of a little bit of arsenic is better than a lot of arsenic. But no arsenic is better than some arsenic."

EPA's Evangelista acknowledged the concern but said that he doesn't believe the agency is in the position to dictate what PSEG uses to fire its plant. His air compliance colleague, Lavigna, agreed that EPA can only make sure the company complies with the standards that are in place for whatever fuel it uses.

In the end, the battle over the Hudson generating station seems be caught in the catch-22 that Harper pointed out while walking along Duffield Avenue last week: While PSEG has made a massive investment to clean up the plant, it has also added years to the the facility's lifespan.

"We need to acknowledge that we shouldn't power this country with coal for the next 50 years," said Doug O'Malley of Environment New Jersey, which has battled PSEG over concerns at the Hudson plant since the 1990s.

"Clearly we are not going to flip the switch on America's coal plants tomorrow, but we do need to clean them up and we need to plan how to convert to a clean energy technology. ... We need the state to adopt a energy plan that phases out the Hudson generating station."

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