Bridgeport — As the nation sheds the concept of clean coal for plentiful and even cleaner natural gas, environmental activists are hoping they can push Connecticut to abandon coal as a power source.
They’ve seized that opportunity this summer as the owner of Connecticut’s one remaining coal-fired power plant, the Bridgeport Harbor coal plant, applies to renew its five-year operating permit with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The plant is owned by the New Jersey-based PSEG Power.
But DEEP is expected to issue a permit renewal in the coming weeks, although officials say they may tighten standards for operation of the plant after receiving volumes in public comment.
And while economics have already contributed to a rapid decline in the station’s activity, it’s unlikely the Bridgeport plant will shut down anytime soon.
The plant’s operating hours were cut in half from 2010 to 2011 and are likely to be slashed further this year, but coal still provides 2 percent of Connecticut’s power, PSEG says. And despite an embrace of natural gas in the Northeast, company officials say there is still a need for coal in case of a sudden change in power supplies. This happened in 2005, when destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina disrupted the flow of natural gas from pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico to New England.
“Coal has its place,” said Robert Silvestri, a senior environmental engineer with PSEG Power. “If you were to take one particular fuel out [of the power mix], you’re going to hurt everything as far as generation goes.”
And the plant also has its place in Bridgeport’s landscape, as a fixture since the 1950s and one of the city’s largest taxpayers. While the Sierra Club’s national “Beyond Coal” campaign activists are pushing for the coal plant to be replaced with a unit that generates solar power, residents are concerned that in an already economically depressed city, a closed coal plant would simply end up as yet another abandoned lot.
“If there were a change away from that plant, then the question would be, can you remediate the site and then what’s its future use?” said Chris Bruhl, president of the Fairfield County Business Council.
“The idea of having it just sitting there doing nothing, well, that’s totally unacceptable.”
On its way out
Several years ago, “Clean coal was considered the holy grail of dealing with climate change,” said David Downie, an environmental studies professor at Fairfield University. “There’s a physical reality to coal that outstrips both natural gas and oil in terms of its abundance, and, frankly, how cheap it is to get out of the ground in some places.”
Today, few question that coal is being phased out of the nation’s power mix. While natural gas prices plummet, coal is becoming more expensive. The price of coal delivered to the electric power sector in New England jumped 7 percent between April 2011 and April 2012, according to the Energy Information Administration. (Massachusetts, the most coal-reliant state in New England, depends on the mineral for one-fourth of its power needs, according to the EIA.)
“Within a decade, we’re going to have extremely plentiful environmentally advantageous natural gas here in Connecticut,” Bruhl said. “So that’s kind of what the genesis was of the movement in Bridgeport [to shut down the plant] … if there was no natural gas on the horizon, then you’d be talking more about mitigating as opposed to elimination.”
Some of the Bridgeport movement has been spurred on by the Sierra Club’s national “Beyond Coal” campaign, which has worked to tighten emissions standards for coal plants and prevented new ones from being built. The campaign recently hired Bridgeport native Onte Johnson to head its local community outreach efforts, and the number of public comments submitted to DEEP regarding the plant’s permit renewal was far greater than in a typical response to such a renewal, officials said.
Still, the plant is technically in compliance with all state emissions standards, which are stricter than the national standards in many cases. And Silvestri, the PSEG environmental engineer, said that Connecticut’s pipelines aren’t robust enough to support a complete switch to natural gas.
“The supply might be there, but the infrastructure is not,” he said. “How you get it from point A to point B.”
Bridgeport’s property tax base is also an important consideration. “It’s mind-boggling to me that we have to be dependent on a coal plant” for taxes, said the Sierra Club’s Johnson, but it seems to be the reality for now.
Bridgeport’s mayor Bill Finch was not available for an interview, but in a statement, he called PSEG “one of the city’s biggest taxpayers” and a company with “a continued long-term investment in the city.” The company paid $2.6 million in taxes in 2011, making it the city’s third-largest taxpayer.
But demand for coal is far less than it once was, and data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show that story playing out in Bridgeport.
In 2008, the unit operated for 8,303 hours, its highest number since PSEG started operating the unit in 2002. But by 2011, the number of hours had dropped to just under 2,100. So far this year, as of June, the plant has only operated for 332 hours.
“The demand is not high at this point,” Silvestri acknowledged.
Tracking pollution sources can be tricky
Hundreds crowded into Bridgeport’s city hall two months ago in a public hearing held by DEEP over renewing PSEG’s permit. Many were residents and environmental advocates from groups like the Sierra Club and the Healthy Connecticut Alliance. Some talked of high asthma rates in Bridgeport that could be attributed to pollution.
Tiffany Mallers said she joined the Healthy CT Alliance last year after two of her children suffered sudden, unexplained asthma attacks.
“If you look like you are going to hurt my children, I’m going to fight back,” she said, one voice in hours of public testimony. “My children need healthy air to breathe.”
But others testified in support of the plant, saying it’s a critical source of 50 jobs in Bridgeport and a major contributor to the city’s tax base.
PSEG pointed to DEEP figures showing that 95 percent of Connecticut’s air pollution comes from out-of-state.
That mix is a little different in Fairfield County, where congested traffic on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway contributes to worse air pollution than in the rest of the state. To be sure, the Bridgeport Harbor Station contributes some as well, but not as much as people might think, said DEEP air pollution expert Sam Sampieri.
“There could be many, many other aspects that could cause the high asthma rates in that area,” he said. “It’s an urban center, you can have background pollution from cars, you can also have construction pollution.”
All the major cities in Connecticut have high child asthma rates. And when it comes to Bridgeport, Sampieri said, the coal plant’s smokestack is high enough that most of its emissions is blown far downwind, meaning that most of the pollution created by the plant may not affect the city very much.
Canvassing the neighborhood
The plant lies in one of Bridgeport’s more impoverished neighborhoods. Directly adjacent to it is a small public green space that overlooks Long Island Sound, along with streets crowded with multifamily housing.
Few nearby residents think much about the plant.
“I have friends that work there, and from what they said, they’re saying that it’s clean, and that the Sierra Club is trying to shut it down,” said Herbert Johnson, who has lived in the area for decades.
Others didn’t know it was there. Noise was minimal, they said, especially since the plant operates infrequently now (it ran for just 100 hours in June). But a mountain of coal is easily visible from the street.
The Sierra Club’s Onte Johnson said it’s unfair that PSEG, otherwise known for efforts in renewable and cleaner energy in other states, still operates this coal plant here. The group maintains that PSEG has taken advantage of a poorer city where political opposition is slower to materialize and jobs are badly needed.
“[Many of the people I talk to say] wow, I didn’t know I had a coal plant in my backyard,” Johnson said. “And that’s a serious issue.”
The Sierra Club said it doesn’t expect DEEP to deny PSEG’s operating permit this year. But it hopes DEEP will apply more stringent requirements for operation, such as adding additional cleaning methods. DEEP officials said they are taking such comments into consideration.
DEEP is expected to respond to public comment and issue a decision in the coming weeks. The EPA has 45 days to review the decision.
This story is the result of a partnership between WNPR and the Mirror. Click here for a radio version of the story.