In a consent decree with four environmental groups, a large central Pennsylvania power plant has agreed to stop tainted water in its coal ash disposal sites from leaking into the Susquehanna River.

The Brunner Island Generating Station, located on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, will be addressing leakage from several coal ash disposal sites that environmental groups allege is contaminating the river. (Dan Blood)

The Brunner Island Generating Station, located on the Susquehanna just south of Harrisburg, has agreed to close and excavate one of its active but leaking coal ash landfills and address leaks at seven other sites.

The plant also will be fined $1 million by the state Department of Environmental Protection, according to the consent decree to be filed today in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg. The fine is the largest ever involving coal ash disposal in Pennsylvania.

The consent decree involves Brunner Island owner Talen Energy and the environmental groups Environmental Integrity Project, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, PennEnvironment and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

A consent decree is a legal agreement that solves a dispute between two parties without the accused party admitting guilt.

For 58 years, Brunner Island has burned coal to generate enough electricity to continuously power 1 million homes. Beginning in 2016, the plant began producing some power with natural gas. As part of another lawsuit and consent decree in 2018 with The Sierra Club, which had alleged air and water pollution, the plant is to phase out coal power by the end of 2028.

The legacy of toxic coal ash stored around the plant is the basis for the latest litigation. Coal ash includes fly ash and bottom ash left over from burning coal, boiler slag and flue gas materials.

The environmental groups contend that 367 acres of coal ash storage sites have leaked arsenic, boron, lithium, chlorine, phosphorus and suspended solids into the Susquehanna and two of its tributaries for at least the last five years — a problem they say threatens fish and aquatic species and puts kayakers, anglers, birdwatchers and local businessowners at risk. The landfills cited as problems include six closed but unlined pits, one active unlined pit and one active lined pit.

The landfills are often saturated with water, and toxic material escapes through springs and seeps and overflows, according to the groups’ lawsuit, which was filed simultaneously with the consent decree.

The groups criticized the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for not prosecuting Brunner Island and correcting the leaks, which they say violate the federal Clean Water Act and Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law. The DEP renewed Brunner Island’s discharge permit in 2018.

“We are pleased to have reached agreement and appreciate the hard work and collaborative efforts [of the various groups] to resolve this matter,” Talen said in a statement.

“Talen is committed to complying with all environmental regulations and will continue to focus on the safe, efficient and reliable operation of our plants,” said Talen spokesperson Debra Raggio.

Talen noted that it inherited the coal ash issues when it purchased the plant.

“The projects funded by this settlement will help ensure we are leaving the Lower Susquehanna River in better shape for future generations,” said Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper. “And those of us who enjoy the Lower Susquehanna River can rest easier tonight knowing that concrete measures and timelines are in place to reduce toxic pollution in the river.”

Mary Greene of the Environmental Integrity Project said Talen Energy deserves credit “for stepping up to the plate and agreeing to measures that should significantly reduce pollution.”

The Brunner Island plant has been long-criticized for generating air pollution, fined for fish kills and lambasted for closing fishing areas once open to the public.