How did PSNH get it so wrong?

Last modified: 1/28/2012 12:00:00 AM
A lawsuit filed in July against Public Service of New Hampshire for creating a new source of pollution from its construction work on the old Merrimack Station power plant in Bow just turned electric.

The plaintiff, the Conservation Law Foundation, brought PSNH to federal court for flouting the Clean Air Act. The CLF says that in 2006, 2008 and 2009 PSNH modified and operated the plant's two coal-fired electric generating units without permits. Moreover, the work now puts the public health at greater risk and harms the environment.

Then, late last year, the Environmental Protection Agency weighed in with a friend of the court brief, and PSNH now faces a formidable foe. The EPA controls the interpretation of its own regulations. In its conclusion the EPA says that "PSNH comes before this court seeking to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint based on an argument that is wholly contrary to the statute, regulations, case law, EPA's interpretation and NSR practice."

NSR means "new source review." Any new construction on old coal-fired plants that creates a new, significant source of pollution triggers this pre-construction review. It also sets off a "Prevention of Significant Deterioration," a different pre-construction review of air quality.

How did PSNH get it so wrong? For a start, it took pure gall. Then the state helped.

On Jan. 31, 2008, PSNH asked the state Air Resources Division for an "expedited regulatory review" of its plant projects. Three months later the division "conditionally" granted a permit for the work despite the "new source review" and "prevention of significant deterioration" requirements. According to the complaint, among other permitting violations PSNH removed the turbines on both units and replaced them with new, more powerful ones.

Given the extent of the work it put into its Lazarus project on the Merrimack Station, PSNH might just as well have razed the plant and built anew.

The Air Resources Division said the turbine project jumped the plant's net output between 6 and 13 megawatts. The CLF says it also increased the nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other pollutants the plant emitted without proper controls. This put the elderly, children, and those with trouble breathing at greater risk for heart and lung disease and dying.

The CLF claims the Merrimack Station ranks among the most polluting power plants in New England. In 2010 it emitted more than 2.8 million tons of carbon dioxide. Climatologists place coal as the worst among fossil fuels for having created today's long ago predicted wild weather.

Free of its costs to the public health and the environment, burning coal for PSNH and its parent Northeast Utilities generates power and profit. Just after the turbine project started, in April 2008 the company began looking to sell the Bow plant's new excess capacity. That's when PSNH requested a transmission interconnection to the Independent System Operator of New England to send these electrons elsewhere.

In 2005 the EPA wrote new rules for coal-fired power plants. They showed great concern for cutting mercury and sulfur emissions. To this end, the EPA intended scrubber retrofits for coal-burning plants with some life left. They otherwise sought to close plants at the end of their expected life, like the one in Bow. Then as an added benefit, the EPA's new rules would begin to ease overall carbon emissions too.

The trouble started in 2006 when PSNH drove the state's Mercury Emissions Program into law. It did this by posing the scrubber project as a retrofit alone. Still, with the Merrimack Station at 46 years old, the project ran counter to the intent of the new EPA rules. Nevertheless, with the program now New Hampshire law and under the guise of a retrofit, the EPA wouldn't touch it. Otherwise, as long as PSNH kept the project tagged at $250 million, no one suspected a thing.

But in August 2008 when the PUC discovered in an SEC report that Northeast Utilities had raised the price for the scrubber from $250 million to $457 million, it exposed the retrofit as a hoax. The folks at the New Hampshire Sierra Club saw through it straight away, and I think the CLF did too. What's remarkable is that the EPA - Region I wrote a complex draft analysis for a PSNH retrofit at the Merrimack Station as late as November 2010 but never published the final one.

PSNH officials crowed when the reported cost for the new construction totaled only $422 million, $35 million less than its second estimate. But it seems they forgot that it still amounts to $172 million more than its first. Now we learn PSNH officials knew for the past decade that the plant would likely need a new cooling system. This requires a new permit and another $112 million.

When will it end?

It will end when the state makes PSNH live with the permits it bargained for and grants it no more. It will end when our elected officials end their complicity with PSNH and Northeast Utilities and refuse to do their bidding. That'll be the day.

(Terry Cronin of Hopkinton is a stay-at-home dad and a freelance writer.)

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