CHANGE OF PLANS
Elizabeth Township officials consider new spot for proposed gas power plant
A proposed natural gas power plant in Elizabeth Township, blocked by township zoning officials last year, now is being considered for a second site the developer hopes will be less controversial.
Elizabeth Township’s planning commission devoted a two-hour public meeting Wednesday evening to hearing supporters and opponents of the proposal from Invenergy, a Chicago-based company that builds electric power plants across the country.
The company wants to build a 550-megawatt natural gas-fired plant on a property being used as a scrapyard by Casturo Iron & Metal, a McKeesport company. The 140-acre property — on which the plant’s footprint would need 25 acres — is zoned for residential uses, and the company is seeking a change in zoning to light industrial uses.
In a PowerPoint presentation to the planning commission, Nick Cohen, director of thermal development at Invenergy, said its preliminary studies have shown that virtually no one in the sparsely populated southern tip of the township will see, hear or smell the facility.
He said the plant would cost about $350 million to build, creating at least 300 construction jobs and 21 full-time employees.
But the idea has generated vocal opposition from residents who are skeptical about industrial activity in the township and the plant’s effect on public health and safety.
Shortly after Invenergy put forth its original proposal last year to build the plant about 10 miles north on the site of a contaminated industrial landfill, residents mobilized to oppose it. Some residents formed Protect Elizabeth Township, encouraging local officials to block the project by organizing petitions and distributing yard signs.
That site, despite being used to
dump coal sludge from U.S. Steel during the 1980s, was zoned only for residential purposes, requiring Invenergy to seek a variance from zoning officials.
The township’s zoning board, after three raucous meetings last spring at the Elizabeth Forward Middle School auditorium, voted to deny Invenergy the variance.
Invenergy appealed that decision to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas last July. Filings in that case are due June 5.
On Wednesday, Mr. Cohen said the company would drop the lawsuit if the commissioners approved the zoning change on the Casturo property, which covers a hill next to Smithdale, along the Youghiogheny River.
The planning commission did not comment on the proposal Wednesday, but the commission will schedule a site visit to the property soon before making a recommendation to the township’s board of commissioners, which has the final say on whether the zoning is changed to allow the project to move forward.
Supporters and opponents crowded the township’s meeting room to voice their thoughts — divisions in the community that by now have been clearly drawn.
Some were excited by the prospect of jobs and a boost to the tax base. The company estimates it would pay $300,000 to $500,000 in local taxes annually.
“I have a stack of resumes from people locally who are already qualified to work here,” Mr. Cohen said. “If you have a skill, you likely will be working here.”
The company also is offering to send its wastewater into Elizabeth’s water treatment facilities, which could help pay for the township’s sorely needed upgrades.
“We think it’s a great opportunity to be a customer,” Mr. Cohen said. “We hope we’ll have an opportunity to plug into that system and offset some of that cost.”
Mr. Cohen showed a map highlighting the route trucks would take to bring the building materials and equipment onto the site. Materials would arrive by barge on the Monongahela River and be hauled east on Route 136. They will use two unpaved access roads on either side of Smithdale so no trucks will be going through that community.
Still, other residents equated the company’s offer to drop the lawsuit to a threat.
“This could be residential if the Casturo yard wasn’t there,” said Patty Hoffman, a resident of Mt. Vernon, a neighborhood that is closest to the first property Invenergy is considering.
Fred Bickerton, also a resident of Mt. Vernon, added, “They would set a precedent that would allow anybody who wants to do any kind of industrial activity to do whatever they ... please.”
Smithdale, an unincorporated community, consists of a row of homes cut off geographically from the rest of the township. It has a playground, a war memorial and a few abandoned properties.
On Wednesday, Protect Elizabeth Township signs were seen planted throughout the community.
In an interview, Mr. Cohen said Mr. Casturo reached out to the company to market his land, which has both a natural gas transmission pipeline and overhead transmission electric power lines nearby — an attractive intersection for a power plant developer.
Invenergy entered into an agreement with Mr. Casturo that effectively gives the company control of the land and the right to ask for a zoning change. When construction would begin, Invenergy would own the property outright.
Speaking briefly at the meeting Wednesday, Mr. Casturo suggested the property should have been zoned industrial from the start, citing a history of coal mining and junkyard storage.
“There are a lot of people here for and against this,” he said. “One thing you have to remember about this is that it’s been an industrial site for about 140 years.”
Invenergy also is offering to send its wastewater into Elizabeth’s water treatment facilities, which could help pay for the township’s sorely needed upgrades.