The Brunner Island power plant near Harrisburg — blamed for being one of the most polluting plants in the nation, as well as for several Susquehanna River fish kills — will convert from using coal to natural gas by the end of 2028.A protester holds up a sign at the Brunner Island Power Plant Is Making Us Sick rally at the EPA Region 3 Office, in Philadelphia on Dec. 3, 2015. (E. Bryan Crenshaw III / PA Clean Air Sierra Club).

The 56-year-old facility, which rises from the west shore of the river between York and Lancaster counties, has long been criticized by residents, environmental groups and nearby states for polluting the air and water.

The agreement was brokered as a settlement between Talen Energy, the plant’s Allentown, PA-based owner, and the Sierra Club, a nationwide environmental group. The Sierra Club announced in February its intent to sue Talen for Brunner’s alleged violations of several federal water pollution abatement laws and Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law.

Talen denies the Sierra Club allegations, stating that it is in compliance with state and federal laws, but agreed to sign a consent decree to avoid a lawsuit. In return, the Sierra Club is prohibited from participating in any current or future policy discussions, permitting issues or lawsuits — including funding another organization to support such challenges — that involve any of the club’s allegations against Talen.

The consent decree calls for the plant to operate exclusively on natural gas by 2029.

As a first step, Brunner will operate only on natural gas during the peak ozone season, from May 1 through Sept. 30, beginning in 2023. Its use of coal will end completely by Dec. 31, 2028.

The Sierra Club’s actions against Brunner are part of its national Beyond Coal Campaign, which seeks to retire coal-burning plants and replace them with cleaner, renewable energy such as wind and solar. The club aims to retire one third of the coal-fired plants in the United States by 2020.

“We think that getting the plant to stop creating more ash and achieving the other air, water and climate benefits associated with phasing out coal are a net benefit for public health and the environment,” said Emily Pomilio, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. “And having this agreement in place allows us to focus our efforts on speeding the transition to clean, renewable energy systemwide.” 

Todd Martin, media relations manager for Talen, said that the company had intended to make a full conversion to natural gas and the consent decree only specifies when and how it will happen.

Talen retrofitted Brunner for the capacity to burn either natural gas or coal in 2017.

“From our perspective, the agreement with the Sierra Club is an important development that resolves potential environmental litigation before it’s even been filed,” Martin said. “A key aspect of this settlement is the ‘global’ nature of the agreement with the Sierra Club, which fully resolves all pending claims, as well as potential claims that could have been brought against Brunner Island at the time of the settlement.”

Pollution from the Brunner Island plant, including the emission of nitrogen oxides, has been a concern for decades. Nitrogen oxides are a group of gases that contribute to ozone pollution, which causes respiratory problems in some people and contributes to the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen in waterways. Nitrogen oxide emissions are also a major source of the nitrogen that fouls the Bay’s water quality.

The Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists petitioned state regulators to require Brunner to control nitrogen oxide emissions when the state tightened up standards on the pollutant in 2015. Brunner was exempted from those standards because it doesn’t have the equipment needed to reduce nitrogen oxides — it is the only large coal-burning electric generator in Pennsylvania without it. The state Department of Environmental Protection extended the exemption because Brunner’s pending switch to natural gas is expected to resolve the problem.

Connecticut and Delaware have also accused the plant of contributing to air pollution problems in their states. Both petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for resolution, and later sued the agency to force a solution. In February, after a federal judge ordered the EPA to act on Connecticut’s petition, the agency announced that the plant’s conversation to natural gas makes further action unnecessary. 

Water pollution from the Brunner Island plant has been a concern, too. 

Several fish kills have taken place near the plant’s discharge area since the 1980s, the most recent in 2016 when 12,000 fish were found dead in a channel. After a yearlong investigation, the DEP fined Talen $25,000 for the incident. 

The Sierra Club court papers also claim that Talen is improperly storing coal ash and other byproducts of coal-burning on site in unlined pits. Coal ash is a waste product from burning coal mixed with other substances that are washed from stacks and pollution-control devices. The group’s court papers assert that Brunner produces approximately 671,000 tons of coal ash every year.

Talen’s own monitoring data is noted in the Sierra Club’s claim that contaminants associated with the waste — such as arsenic, manganese, iron and boron — have been leaching into groundwater and ultimately into the Susquehanna River.

The Brunner plant was also involved in a different settlement related to outdated discharge permits. The permits in question are for the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, required by any facility that discharges pollutants into a water body with established pollution limits. Brunner’s permit has not been updated in 10 years and therefore does not reflect more recent updates in regulations. 

The Sierra Club and the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper filed a notice to sue the DEP for allowing Brunner and nine other power plants to operate under outdated regulations. As a result, the DEP has agreed to draft new permits by 2018 and make them official by 2019. 

“Brunner Island last updated its permit in 2006,” said Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, adding that the DEP had proposed extending their current permits until 2022 or 2023. “That [not updating] is a permit to pollute.” 

Neil Shader, DEP press secretary, said the permit delays began in a prior administration. The current leadership became aware of the delay as a result of the legal action brought by outside groups and agreed to issue current permits reflecting the most current regulatory requirements.

Evgeniadis said he would like to see the permits set stricter limits on pollution. He would also like to see Brunner’s coal ash pits cleaned up and limits on heavy metals in discharge waters, but he acknowledged that some of those issues are outside of the scope of an NPDES permit. He said that the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association is committed to filling the void left by the Sierra Club’s legally enforced silence on Brunner Island.

“The Sierra Club loaded the bases for us,” Evgeniadis said. “Now that they can no longer comment, it’s up to us to continue to advocate for ending pollution on Brunner Island.”