To an audio version of this story from WNPR.

Bridgeport — More than 150 people crowded into a room in the City Hall Annex Monday night to weigh in on Bridgeport Harbor Station’s request to renew its five-year operating permit, which expired earlier this year.

Environmentalists have been trying for years to shut down the coal operations at the station, which is owned by the Newark-based Public Service Electric & Gas. This may be their best chance, said John Calandrelli, program director for the Sierra Club’s local chapter.

“This is the first, big, major step in what we believe will be, hopefully, a short fight to convince them to not only retire this plant but to revitalize Bridgeport,” Calandrelli said.

PSE&G insists that the plant’s coal operations are among the cleanest in the nation.

Executive Mark Strickland said that 82 percent of power in Connecticut last year was generated by natural gas and nuclear power, while 2 percent came from coal.

For that reason, he said, PSE&G’s coal facilities in Bridgeport were crucial to making sure Connecticut has a backup power service in case natural gas and nuclear power fail.

“There’s a need for other sources of generation,” Strickland said. “So without plants like Bridgeport Harbor, we may not be able to keep the lights on or homes warm.”

Environmentalists say all those statistics actually help them make their case to close down the station’s coal unit, which is the last remaining coal plant in Connecticut and one of very few that still exist in the Northeast.

“This coal plant is outdated. It’s a dinosaur. And it is time to wake up and invest in renewable energy,” said Onte Johnson, just hired by the National Sierra Club as an organizer for its “Beyond Coal” campaign in Connecticut.

According to PSE&G, the Bridgeport Harbor Station could power more than half a million homes at full capacity, using both oil and coal as power sources. In a presentation to the audience Monday night, executives said the plant has spent more than $100 million to significantly reduce emissions, especially from mercury, in the last 10 years.

Johnson said that isn’t enough. He wants the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to place more stringent restrictions on emissions and efficiency measures before renewing the Bridgeport Harbor Station’s permit.

Members of the Healthy Connecticut Alliance and the Fairfield Environmental Justice Network handed out flyers and booklets with information on the effects of coal plants on nearby communities. In Bridgeport and Fairfield County, they argued, the plant was contributing to higher-than-average rates of asthma and pollution.

According to a state Department of Public Health report from 2009, asthma hospitalization rates for adults in Bridgeport are nearly three times as high as those elsewhere in the state.

PSE&G said its coal plant is not to blame for excessive pollution in the area. Power plants contribute 4 percent to 5 percent of particulate matter and ozone pollution, Strickland said, citing data from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The rest comes from outside the state.

But opponents of the plant said they are choosing to fight the pollution they can control. Tiffany Mallers, a 37-year-old mother who lives two miles from the coal plant, said two of her young daughters had unexpected and unexplained asthma attacks last year. After she went to an environmental meeting and heard about the possible connection between asthma and pollution, she started volunteering for the Healthy Connecticut Alliance.

“I never thought that it could be the environment that sent my daughter with healthy lungs and healthy everything into a severe asthma attack,” Mallers said. “And I don’t know when she might have another one. So this is why I’m here.”

DEEP can’t actually deny Bridgeport Harbor Station’s request to renew its coal operations. But it can put more restrictions on how the coal plant should run. Environmentalists say that with enough restrictions, the power station would have to shut down its coal facility in the next few years, as many coal plants across the country have been forced to do as a result of moves toward other power sources and more regulation of emissions.

DEEP has up to four weeks to review and respond to comments, after which it will submit a proposed permit renewal agreement to the EPA. The EPA will then get another 45 days to review the agreement.

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