Citizens challenge state agency’s coal plant permit
Say Aquasco facility fouling Patuxent from upstream
Nearly 30 people gathered to express concern over a proposed discharge permit for NRG Chalk Point Generation Station in Aquasco during a public hearing on Thursday.
The hearing at Calvert Library Fairview Branch was the last of three the Maryland Department of Environment hosted to give people an opportunity to enter comments on the official record regarding its tentative determination to re-issue a permit for the electricity generating plant to discharge 542 million gallons of water into the Patuxent River, impacting Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties.
“The Chalk Point plant is one of the large polluters of water in the state,” said Lila West, co-chair of the Southern Maryland Sierra Club, demanding the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit for the plant be the strongest and most protective final permit.
The plant consists of coal, oil and natural gas units. According to MDE, its discharge consists of non-contact cooling water, flue gas desulfurization wastewater (treated wastewater from the removal of sulfur dioxide from the exhaust of flue gas), treated sanitary wastewater, miscellaneous other wastewater and stormwater.
Great Mills resident Rosa Hance said the water in the Patuxent River is disgusting. The culprit, she said, is heavy metals that bond to particles and become part of the water cycle instead of staying where they are placed. Hance said the problem has a “totally preventable solution” because the technology exists and is affordable.
Jonathan Rice, MDE regulatory and compliance engineer and permit writer for the Chalk Point project, said the department proposes to re-issue the permit with some limitations involving the amount of discharge of chlorine, oil and grease, total suspended solids, the discharge of heated water and more.
Both Cindy and Bill Piel of Dunkirk complained about the lack of public notice for the meeting, and that notice published in a newspaper outside of Southern Maryland was not sufficient. The Piels were concerned with the development of carcinogens from the discharge buildup, deficiencies in the permit documentation, the need for monitoring the discharge and the need for tighter regulations.
Patrick Grenter, a senior campaign representative with the national Sierra Club, later concurred and said this recent round of hearings is the first chance the public has had to weigh in on Chalk Point’s “water pollution problems” in eight years, since the last permit was issued in 2009.
“It is problematic that the MDE has allowed this facility to operate with a permit that has been expired for three years, with outdated permit controls and standards,” said Grenter.
Chalk Point general manager Greg Staggers, NRG environmental director for the Maryland region David Cramer and senior environmental engineer Ann Wearmouth were at the hearing to listen to citizens’ concerns, but declined to publicly address them.
NRG spokesperson David Gaier said the permit is not expired and the plant submitted a renewal application on time in 2013, before the existing permit had expired. MDE granted an administrative extension to the permit until a new one can be is- sued, Gaier said.
MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson said the permit’s provisions were based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s effluent limitation guidelines in place at the time the permit was issued in 2009.
The draft renewal permit includes language to address an update to the EPA guidelines.
Effluent limitation guidelines are national standards for wastewater discharge to surface waters. To address changes in the power plant industry, technology-based guidelines were established in 2015 during President Barack Obama’s administration, setting the first federal limits on toxic metal levels in wastewater.
The guidelines were projected to reduce the amount of pollutants that come from electric power plants by 1.4 billion pounds and reduce water withdrawal by 57 billion gallons.
Each plant was to comply with the rule between 2018 and 2023 depending on when the plant needs a new National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, per the Clean Water Act. However, last month the EPA postponed the effluent guidelines for two years.
Grenter said per the rule’s rollback, MDE needs to establish a compliance deadline in the permits of no later than Nov. 1, 2020, for flue gas desulfurization wastewater and bottom ash transport water, and that meeting the guidelines is critical, as discharge monitoring data shows Chalk Point routinely exceeds even the laxest discharge limits for arsenic and selenium.
“We found that the plant violated the most lax standards for arsenic 67 times, sometimes by a factor as much as eight times the limit … they also violated the standard for selenium 80 times, sometimes by a factor as high as 30. Thirty times — there is a real pollution problem here that needs to get addressed,” Grenter said.
“Chalk Point is not ‘dumping’ anything into the river.
Chalk Point is discharging water treated by its state-of-the-art treatment systems, and that meets all its stringent permit requirements. The water contains trace amounts of metals and nutrients,” Gaier said.
Linda Morin of Lusby asked why there are coal plants in Maryland operating from technology-based protections from 1982 and why they don’t have to follow the “latest and greatest” requirements and best available technologies.
NRG’s spokesman said when the discharge treatment system was installed in 2009, it was in fact the “best technology available” and the plant has invested significantly in improving the system since then and that the water discharge results from a flue gas desulfurization system, which dramatically improves the plant’s air emissions, as required by MDE.
“The plant will make all additional technology improvements as required in any updated permit,” Gaier said. “The company complies, and will always comply with all applicable environmental laws, regulations, and permit requirements from MDE and all other relevant regulatory agencies.”
Michael Richardson, chief of the Industrial and General Permits Division of MDE’s Water Management Administration, said the department’s responsibility would be to respond to any substantive comments provided during the hearing or in writing by close of business this Friday, Oct. 6, and to issue a financial determination in response to those comments.
Sierra Club members from Southern Maryland and the national chapter as well as other residents from Calvert and St. Mary’s counties came out Thursday in opposition to a Maryland Department of Environment draft permit for NRG Chalk Point Generating Station’s wastewater discharge in the Patuxent River.