Energy company NRG to pay $1 million penalty for power plant pollution
Upgrades at Chalk Point and Dickerson facilities to cut nitrogen discharges to Patuxent, Potomac rivers
The owner of two Maryland power plants accused of polluting Chesapeake Bay tributaries will pay a $1 million penalty and spend millions more to upgrade wastewater treatment at the coal-burning facilities, state officials have announced.
NRG, which operates generating stations at Chalk Point on the Patuxent River and at Dickerson on the Potomac River, also agreed to perform $1 million worth of environmental projects as part of a consent decree entered Friday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
The company, with dual headquarters in New Jersey and Texas, had been sued in 2013 by the state, which charged that Chalk Point and Dickerson were discharging more nitrogen into the rivers than their permits allowed. The state's legal action came after environmental groups threatened to sue, accusing the plants of violating the federal Clean Water Act.
As described in the consent decree, the plants began discharging impermissible levels of nitrogen into the rivers in 2010. The problems occurred after “scrubbers” were installed at the two plants to comply with Maryland’s Healthy Air Act, which required emissions reductions of mercury, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants. The plants’ wastewater treatment facilities could not handle the additional waste from the scrubbers, resulting in excessive nitrogen discharges into the rivers.
Nitrogen is one of the primary pollutants causing water quality problems in the Bay and its tributaries. It feeds algae blooms, which trigger the formation every spring of a “dead zone” where fish and shellfish can’t get enough dissolved oxygen from the water.
From 2010 through last year, according to the consent decree, the Chalk Point plant discharged into the Patuxent anywhere from nearly five times to more than 20 times the amount of nitrogen allowed by its permit on an annual basis. The Dickerson plant also repeatedly exceeded its annual nitrogen limits, the decree asserts.
NRG has agreed to install “membrane ultra-filtration technology” to upgrade the plants’ wastewater treatment systems, according to the decree. The upgrades, which will enable the facilities to reduce their nitrogen discharges, are to be completed by Oct. 1. The company has also agreed to put in additional water-monitoring equipment, and to pay stipulated penalties if it exceeds its discharge limits in future.
Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s environment secretary, called the $1 million penalty stiff, and noted that in addition to cleaning up the plants’ discharges, the company would have to make “significant investments in projects to protect the health of our priceless Potomac and Patuxent rivers.”
Those projects have not been settled, according to David Gaier, an NRG spokesman. The company has 75 days to propose them to the Maryland Department of the Environment. MDE will decide whether to approve them after consulting with the environmental groups that intervened, which included the Patuxent and Potomac riverkeepers and Food & Water Watch.
NRG did not admit wrongdoing, but spokesman Gaier said the company is “pleased to have resolved this suit without further litigation that would be costly and unproductive for both sides.”
The company spokesman noted that farms are the biggest source of the Bay’s nutrient pollution, and that the nitrogen NRG was accused of discharging illegally into the rivers was a byproduct of its attempts to reduce air pollution at its plants. He also noted that all the environmental groups that had intervened signed off on the consent decree.
But Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, said he would have liked to see a larger penalty imposed for the plants’ continued pollution of the rivers as the lawsuit dragged out.
At one point, Tutman recalled, the plants’ owner had tried to persuade the state to let it offset the nitrogen pollution from its plants with reductions made elsewhere. The riverkeeper, who opposes pollution “trading” on principle, said he was glad the state “stepped up” to force the company to reduce its nitrogen discharges from the plants.
Attorney General Brian Frosh, whose office represented the MDE in pursuing the lawsuit, said the case was “challenging” but he expressed his satisfaction with its resolution.
Frosh has said he believes in strict enforcement of environmental laws, and has expressed concerns about a shift at the MDE under the Hogan administration toward offering polluters “compliance assistance.” In this case, which was initially brought during the administration of former Gov. Martin O’Malley, Frosh said he had the cooperation of the MDE in pressing NRG representatives to clean up the plants’ nutrient pollution.
“They said ‘Give us a break,’ and we said no, and ultimately they agreed,” Frosh said.
The consent decree, though, notes that the MDE has not ruled out approving the company’s request for pollution offsets. The department is in the process of finalizing guidelines and proposed regulations for nutrient pollution trading.
The MDE plans to propose new discharge permits for the two power plants, according to department spokesman Jay Apperson, which will set nitrogen limits based on the facilities’ historic releases of the nutrient and on the limits of the new treatment technology.
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