Environmental activists and some local residents are pressing Maryland regulators to impose stricter water-quality safeguards on an aging power plant in the Baltimore area that’s periodically releasing “bottom ash” from its coal-fired boilers into a Chesapeake Bay tributary.

The owner of the C. P. Crane Generating Station, which sits on a peninsula east of the city, is seeking state permission to keep discharging “bottom ash transport water” as well as stormwater collected from the 156-acre facility. Much of the discharge lands in two creeks, Seneca and Saltpeter, that are between the Gunpowder and Middle rivers. The Maryland Department of the Environment has issued a draft five-year permit, and has been taking public comments on it this summer. A final decision is due soon, MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said.

The MDE and the owner, Middle River Power, a subsidiary of Avenue Capital Group, a New York-based investment firm, said the plant is safe and has a good track record. But activists and a Baltimore County civic group representative object, contending that the MDE hasn’t required enough testing of the plant’s discharges to tell if they could be a factor in the rivers’ pollution woes.

“I don’t think this permit protects public health,” said Gunpowder Riverkeeper Theaux Le Gardeur. “I don’t think it’s defensible.” He called the permit “half-baked” and contends that it doesn’t address multiple issues, including chemical discharges, stormwater, the ash releases and monitoring.

Though the Gunpowder River, a source of drinking water for the Baltimore area, is one of the cleanest tributaries in the state and known for its coldwater trout fishing, the lower, tidally influenced portion is impaired by nutrient pollution, as is nearby Middle River. Parts of Middle River, which has had several large fish kills recently, also are deemed impaired by sediments contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, now-banned chemicals which were once widely used, mainly in electrical equipment. PCBs and other hazardous chemicals used and dumped at an aircraft manufacturing plant on Middle River contaminate the groundwater beneath Martin State Airport. Aerospace company Lockheed Martin, which owned the airport before the state bought it, has been investigating and remediating pollution in the area since the 1990s.

The 55-year old Crane plant is one of the smallest in Maryland. It employs 50 people and runs only 10–20 percent of the year, generally in July or August or January and February, when demand for electricity is greatest, according to its operators. It can generate 400 megawatts of power from its two coal-fired units and its one oil-combustion turbine.

Crane, which has been sold several times since its last permit application five years ago, needs a water discharge permit to continue to operate. Its new owner, Middle River Power, says it would discharge stormwater as well as “bottom ash transport water,” which is used to clean out the plant’s boilers.

When power plants burn coal, one of the main byproducts is an ash composed of fine particles. The lighter fly ash comes out of the top of the smokestack. The coarser, heavier combustion byproducts fall to the bottom. Plants like Crane flush the bottom ash from their boilers periodically, and hold the wash water in impoundments or storage tanks to let the ash settle out. At Crane, that water is treated and discharged every other year into Seneca Creek.

Crane reports discharging 170,000 gallons every two years. Neither the company’s permit application nor the MDE fact sheet about it indicates how much ash is in the discharged water.

Both Crane and MDE officials maintain that such a release is safe because the water is confined while it’s being used to clean out the boilers and does not get discharged until it is treated to filter out the bottom ash, which after drying is supplied to a company that markets the material as an abrasive blasting agent.

The power plant’s owner says it expects to purge the transport water only one more time before 2020, as the company plans to stop burning coal by then and convert the facility either to burn natural gas or simply store it rather than generate energy. If the company goes the natural gas route, it will use new equipment. That conversion is driven by tightening air-quality regulations, which would require the Crane plant to significantly reduce smog-forming emissions in a few years, either by installing costly pollution scrubbers, switching to cleaner-burning fuel or shutting down.

Mark Kubow, president and chief executive officer of Middle River Power, said the transport water is “basically pristine” when discharged because it’s treated to filter out any remaining ash that hasn’t already settled out. He added that the company is “very honest. We do everything by the book.”

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared that even after treatment, bottom ash transport water contains “significant concentrations of metals, including arsenic and mercury.” The agency last year established a zero-discharge standard, requiring coal plants to cease releases of bottom ash as soon as possible beginning Nov. 1, 2018, but no later than Dec. 31, 2023.

According to the EPA, about 79 percent of the coal and petroleum coke-fired power plants wet-sluice all or part of the ash produced.

Middle River resident Dan Doerfer, who lives about three miles from the plant and serves on the Essex-Middle River Civic Council, calls the permit application “incomplete, not enough, just completely insufficient.” He said he is concerned the plant did not do enough sampling, is not treating the waste for chemicals such as arsenic and bromides and is not monitoring for PCBs.

The plant is a few miles north of Hart-Miller Island, a popular swimming area where the Maryland Department of Natural Resources recently opened a new state park. On a recent visit, the river teemed with crabbers and recreational boaters.

Le Gardeur also contends that there’s been insufficient sampling of the plant’s discharges. The company submitted a sample from just one of its 29 outfalls into the creek, taken when only one of the two power units was running.

Sylvia Lam, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, a DC-based nonprofit also opposing the permit renewal, said the plant’s discharge sampling doesn’t meet EPA standards. The agency requires applicants to take four separate samples within 24 hours for such tests, she said.

Le Gardeur said he believes state regulators are operating under a “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude with regard to other industrial chemicals as well. Among them are bromides, which the company’s permit application identified as an ingredient in its discharge, but which the MDE did not mention in the fact sheet it prepared for the public about the plant.

Apperson, the MDE’s spokesman, defended the agency’s handling of the plant, noting that under the new draft permit, the plant will be required to reduce by half its allowable discharge of total suspended solids — another pollutant impairing Middle River’s water quality — and to analyze and identify sources of nutrients in its wastewater. The company would also be required to develop a stormwater pollution prevention plan and do more testing for toxicity at both of its primary outfalls. Apperson said the other 27 outfalls do not need to be tested because “they are for stormwater runoff that has no reasonable chance of coming into contact with coal.”

The draft permit would allow the plant to continue discharging bottom ash water until June 20, 2020. Le Gardeur said the state rules should at least be as stringent as the federal ones. The MDE, in its fact sheet, said meeting the 2018 initial deadline set by EPA would be “onerous” to the company and would not provide a “significant benefit” if the company later ceases burning coal, as it said it would likely do.

Kubow said the company was surprised about opposition to its permit and in particular to the bottom ash. He said the sampling met the permit requirements and that taking more grab samples would not have made a difference.

“All we’re saying,” Kubow said. “is we have to do that once more before we stop burning coal.”