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SEPTA’s natural gas plant in Nicetown drew controversy. An important ruling could come next month.

A long-awaited decision on SEPTA's still-not-operational natural gas plant could come as soon as next month.

A view of the natural gas power generator under construction at SEPTA's Midvale Depot.
A view of the natural gas power generator under construction at SEPTA's Midvale Depot.Read moreDavid Maialetti

The long-enduring fight between SEPTA and area environmentalists over a natural gas generator in Nicetown may get some resolution next month.

More than a year after the License and Inspection Review Board began considering an appeal to deny SEPTA a needed city-issued permit, and about three years after organized opposition to the facility emerged, a decision is expected to come in late October, a city spokesperson said.

At issue is a 8,800-kilowatt generator SEPTA says will produce cleaner energy than the Peco power grid it currently relies on. Opponents worry the plant is a harbinger of an expanding market for natural gas in Philadelphia that would encourage fracking elsewhere in Pennsylvania for decades to come.

“This is a small power plant, that’s true, but SEPTA is a big system," said Peter Winslow, a member of 350 Philadelphia, which is leading the opposition to the generator. "If they were to use this as their precedent, and put another one at Schuylkill Yards, and put another one at 69th Street, by the time you’ve put all of them in place, you really have a very substantial demand that they’ll be supplying for fracked gas.”

SEPTA says it has no plans underway to build additional natural gas generators but is considering the benefits of expanding to other locations.

The $26.8 million facility was supposed to begin operation in January 2019, SEPTA officials said a year ago. Construction was not finished until early this year, and testing is now underway. Along with the delays completing construction, SEPTA also encountered difficulties installing the poles to carry wires to the Wayne Junction substation that set the project back. The generator, when active, is expected to supply power for the northern half of SEPTA’s Regional Rail and the agency is being slow in the rollout because they want it to operate perfectly when it is turned on.

“It’s making sure that everything is working the way it should, that all the technical components are coming together, that all the measurements and readings are accurate,” said Andrew Busch, a SEPTA spokesperson.

>>READ MORE: A fight over SEPTA’s natural gas generator continues, even as construction nears its end

The delay is not related to the pending appeal with the L&I board, Busch said, and the generator is now scheduled to be turned on in November.

The board is being asked to evaluate an appeal to the air permit granted to that location. The permit is required for a facility like SEPTA’s generator to operate in Philadelphia.

The generator is on the same property as the Midvale Bus Depot, the staging area for about 300 buses a day. Those buses produce nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide. The generator’s opponents say the emissions contribute to the Nicetown area’s having one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the city. The natural gas generator would produce some of the same contaminants, but experts have said the output would be negligible and would, in fact, reduce greenhouse gases currently produced by burning oil.

Of far greater concern to environmentalists is the market that natural gas generators provide for fracking. A shift from coal to natural gas has led to a net decrease in Pennsylvania’s output of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. But the process of extracting natural gas from the ground still creates emissions that worsen climate change. The worst of the pollution caused by natural gas happens not at the site of generators like SEPTA’s, but elsewhere in the state where the gas is obtained.

The plant’s opponents said that even if the L&I board rules in SEPTA’s favor, the effort to shut it down would not end. However, Wilson also said his organization would be willing to consider a compromise: If SEPTA took significant steps to reduce the pollution the buses generated at that location, his group might accept the natural gas generator.

“If SEPTA were to operate their entire facility, those yards, in a way that was designed to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and toxic air pollution, that would be a compromise,” he said. “Do something about all the diesel emissions coming from all the buses at the Midvale Bus Depot.”

>>READ MORE: SEPTA explores the promising, environmentally friendly, yet uncertain future of electric buses

SEPTA is doing that, Busch said. About 90 percent of its bus fleet are hybrid vehicles, which produce fewer emissions than buses that rely entirely on diesel fuel. SEPTA this year put 25 electric buses into service, and 10 more expected to arrive in the next year will be assigned to the Midvale depot, he said.

The agency is also looking at other steps to reduce the emissions from buses there, including limiting the time the vehicles spend idling — something that could be done by not turning on the engines until just before the buses begin their routes.

“They’re things that are making the fleet greener," Busch said, “and are done with the idea that they’re going to reduce emissions.”