Video by Ashley Murray
On the first warm and sunny day this March, cooped-up residents of Springdale emerged from their homes, ready for spring. In the otherwise unremarkable small town, two power-plant smoke stacks loom above, the defining characteristic of the place. You can hardly avoid seeing them against the clear, blue sky.
Likewise, the plume of smoke that has come from the 82-acre Cheswick Generating Station since 1970 has helped define residents' lives.
"From what I've seen, it's a lot cleaner than it used to be," said Dave Cuiffi, who lives two miles away. Cuiffi was crouched on the ground, fixing a client's winter-worn front sidewalk. He says he was a heavy-equipment operator when the plant built its new scrubber — a technology that removes harmful sulfur-dioxide emissions before exhaust is blown through the stack. "It used to emit a lot of brown smoke out of the original stack. Now it's a lot cleaner, white smoke out of the new stack." The white smoke Cuiffi sees is the water vapor and steam produced by the plant’s scrubber.
His client, an older woman whose house overlooked the plant from the hillside, had her own take on the pollution. She expressed disgust at having to re-paint her home. "This house used to be white," said the woman, who wouldn't give her name.
The NRG-owned plant's emissions are also at the heart of a discussion over its operating permit, which expires in December. While the plant is satisfying its federal emissions requirements, activists say those limits are too high and need to be tightened.
"The stuff they're emitting isn't illegal, according to the permit," says Randy Francisco, of the Sierra Club. "It's atrocious."
The coal-fired Cheswick Generating Station, which employs 105 people, is located 16 miles northeast of Downtown Pittsburgh, in Springdale, but is named for its neighboring borough. The plant has the capacity to produce 565 megawatts, enough to power more than 400,000 homes. NRG doesn't specify exactly how often the plant operates — only that it doesn't typically run at full capacity. It's outfitted with "environmentally responsible" and "state-of-the-art" technology, according to, respectively, both NRG and environmentalists. Where those parties disagree is on whether the scrubber and another emissions-reducing technology — a Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) system, for nitrogen oxides — are running all of the time.
NRG's scrubber permit with the Allegheny County Health Department (which enforces federal emissions law) says that if the plant is operating, the scrubber must run. And NRG company spokesperson David Gaier says that the way the scrubber is configured in the new stack, there's no way to bypass it.
But critics say the plant could be achieving better results. Based on recent trends, they wonder if all measures are being taken to reduce emissions.
Separate from its scrubber, the plant is free to either run its SCR or buy pollution allowances via a cap-and-trade-type system regulated by the state and the Environmental Protection Agency.
But as it stands, the permit numbers themselves are "way too high," says Tom Schuster, senior campaign rep for the Sierra Club in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Meanwhile, NRG's Cheswick permit is part of a larger fight over air quality in the county and the region.
The EPA targets sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) because of health risks they pose. Sulfur dioxide can form sulfur oxide compounds, or SOx, in the atmosphere, which can form particulate matter, or soot, which can "penetrate deeply" into the lungs, and is implicated in lung and heart disease. Nitrogen oxides and nitrogen dioxide gasses, commonly referred to as NOx, form ozone compounds in the atmosphere and irritate the respiratory system, specifically inducing asthma complications.
The pollutants are regulated by the Clean Air Act. Since the early 2000s, Allegheny County has been charged with enforcing the EPA's permit for emissions standards every five years for major polluting sources.
Currently, the Cheswick plant is permitted to emit more than 33,000 tons of SO2 per year, or nearly one-and-a-half pounds per mmBtu — a heat-input rate measurement (one million British thermal units) that allows big and small plants to be compared more equally. Since the scrubber was installed, the plant's numbers have been well below that limit. But Schuster says that the plant's limit is simply too high.
"Basically, [the limit is] what you would see on a non-scrubber plant. We want to make sure we're protecting the community," Schuster says.
Schuster and the Sierra Club are advocating for 0.07 pounds per mmBtu.
"The plants with this equipment should be going as low as they can," Schuster says.
Sulfur-dioxide emissions from the plant took a nose-dive during 2011-2012 — from just over 9,000 tons (or 0.7 1bs/mmBtu) to just under 2,000 tons (0.15 lbs/mmBtu). This was the year the scrubber technology became fully operational — possibly why Cuiffi sees a different color "smoke" now. Pre-scrubber rates hovered in the 30,000-45,000-ton range. But the 2013-2014 numbers show an uptick, from 0.1144 lbs/mmBtu to 0.2902 lbs/mmBtu — not anywhere near pre-scrubber rates, but nearly double the lowest numbers achieved by the plant in 2013. Another pollutant from the plant on a slight upswing is nitrogen oxides — from just over 2,500 tons (0.2608 lbs/mmBtu) in 2010 to just over 6,000 tons (0.3821 lbs/mmBtu) in 2014.