Smell and noise from power plant worries residents; DEP says it’s vapor and steam
JESSUP — A thick cloud, burning smell and loud noises originating from the Lackawanna Energy Center last week concerned some borough residents, but officials say it was only water vapor and steam.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection received five complaints about the energy center late Nov. 25, said DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly. Residents reported an odor and cloud near Invenergy LLC’S natural gas power plant but DEP inspected and only saw water vapor coming from the stacks of Unit 1 and Unit 2, she said in an email. The units are two of the plant’s three generator units. Unit 3 is nearing completion and undergoing testing and commissioning.
Neither unit exceeded any permitted limits of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides or ammonia between midnight Nov. 25 and 11 p.m. Nov. 26, Connolly said.
As an irritant, nitrogen
oxides, or NOX, would cause individuals to feel a scratchy feeling in their lungs but could cause more serious issues for those with respiratory problems, such as asthma.
Based on photos the DEP reviewed, the department “determined that the cloud appears to be water vapor that you would expect to see from any combustion source on a cold day with high humidity,” Connolly said. The photos did not show any “residual opacity” or smoke beyond the vapor, which is expected from natural gas combustion, and, there was a heavy layer of fog that night, she said.
During a Nov. 27 inspection of the energy center, the DEP “did not observe any noise or odors during the site visit,” Invenergy spokeswoman Beth Conley said in an email.
Unit 2 of the energy center was shut down for maintenance and restarted just before midnight Nov. 25, and during the shutdown, a pipe in the plant filled with steam, causing a pressure-relief valve to open briefly, she said.
“This may account for the unusual noise reported, however it would have lasted only a few seconds,” Conley said.
Jessup Borough Councilman Peter Larioni questioned Invenergy representative Chris Smith during this week’s council meeting.
“We had some complaints about yellow smoke, and noise and people with physical problems,” Larioni said.
The relief valve opens for a couple seconds at a time and “this may have happened two or three times during the shutdown period, but that was it,” Smith said.
Jessup resident and planning commission Chairwoman Paula Nenish said she heard something that sounded “like a jet engine” at about midnight that night, and the sound continued intermittently until about 3 a.m.
Invenergy informed DEP that Unit 2 began startup at 11:23 p.m. Nov. 25, shut down at 12:24 a.m., began starting up again at 1:39 and completed startup at 2:10, Connolly said.
“Startup of these units can be difficult at times,” she said, explaining they are designed to run consistently.
Just after midnight Nov. 26, Jessup resident Anthony Wrightson, who opposes the plant, said he saw the plume above the plant and drove through Jessup taking photos and video. He compared the odor to burning wires, which he said made him cough, and said he heard a loud hum for hours and felt his eyes burn.
“It wasn’t just that day,” he told the newspaper, clarifying that he regularly notices a burning smell depending on the wind direction. “Whenever it’s running, you get an odor . ... That night it was bad.”
Borough resident Tim Seamans also went out to get photos when he saw the plumes. A plant opponent, Seamans, who says he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, said within 10 minutes, his eyes teared, his nose ran and he began coughing. The following day, he said he could not stop wheezing and coughing.
“This has really, really aggravated my breathing,” Seamans said.
Smith said residents can differentiate between smoke and steam plumes by looking for separation between the plume and the power plant’s stacks.
What residents saw is “not a smoke plume at all,” Smith said. Steam plumes will have a gap between the plume and the top of the stack, whereas smoke will be a continuous stream out of the stack.
“The visible plume that you are observing is when moist, hot exhaust temperature hits the colder, humid atmosphere conditions that cause condensation in the atmosphere,” he said.
Seamans and Wrightson both pointed to an Invenergy facts page from 2015 that said, “No visible emissions. Due to the switch to air-cooling, the plant will not produce visible emissions.”
“We feel that they blatantly lied that there were no visible emissions,” Seamans said.
The Lackawanna Energy Center early on Nov. 26.