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Portland plant to stop using coal six months early

Environmental advocates who said it was the major source of air pollution in North Jersey declare a victory. Decision will settle a lawsuit.

Environmental advocates are declaring a victory today, after an announcement that NRG Energy Inc. will stop using coal at its Portland Generating Station, a power plant that is along the Delaware River in northeastern Pennsylvania, six months earlier than planned.

In addition, the company's Titus plant, another coal-fired facility just beyond the Philadelphia suburbs, will close Sept. 1 of this year, instead of April 15, 2015, as previously planned.

New Jersey officials had long sought action at the Portland plant, which they claimed was the major air polluter in the northern part of the state.

The decision is part of a settlement of a law suit that both New Jersey and Connecticut initiated in 2007.

To meet the requirements of the settlement, according to a company press release, NRG will stop using coal as fuel in two units at its Portland facility by June 1, 2014, after receiving the appropriate regulatory approvals. The units were previously scheduled to be deactivated on January 6, 2015.

NRG has also agreed to invest $1 million to benefit the environment in New Jersey and Connecticut, the company said.

Lee Davis, President of NRG's East Region, said the company acquired the plant in December, 2012, and had operated it in compliance with permits. However, "we immediately started working with New Jersey and Connecticut and were able to resolve this issue without additional delay or cost to taxpayers," he said.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection commissioner Bob Martin said the agreement was ""a tremendous win for cleaner air and better health for the residents of New Jersey. For too long, the coal-fired generators at this power plant emitted levels of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants at levels that were unhealthy for our residents."

According to the DEP, sulfur dioxide (SO2), mercury and many other contaminants emitted into the air from the Portland facility are carried in the atmosphere across the Delaware River to communities in Warren County, and also negatively impact air quality in Morris, Sussex and Hunterdon counties.

The DEP's air monitoring station in Knowlton Township, Warren County, which is one mile from the Portland power plant, has measured the highest short-term sulfur dioxide levels in all of New Jersey, due to pollution emanating from the Portland generating station. The sulfur dioxide coming from the plant is known to contribute to a variety of adverse health effects, including asthma and respiratory failure, and environmental impacts such as acid rain, the agency said in a press release.

Tom Schuster, Pennsylvania Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club, called the settlement agreement "a victory for the communities, people and organizations who have fought for years to protect their families' health and retire this outdated coal plant.

Jeff Tittle, New Jersey Sierra Club chapter director, said the plant's closure "will help us all breathe easier."

Both said they hoped the plant's output would be replaced by power from renewable resources, rather than natural gas.

No word on that just yet. Company spokesman David Gaier said that the company is "looking at all our assets in the east region on a case by case basis as candidates for converting all units to natural gas." But no decision has been made.

As for Titus, "at this point, we don't think plant is a candidate for converstion. It's just not feasible," Gaier said.

The Titus plant -- as with Portland -- had originally been slated for closure or some other action because of new federal mercury and air toxics regulations that would have required "prohibitively expensive" new equipment, Gaier said.

But in addition, Titus is small, has a high overhead and doesn't run very often. It "lost a significant amount of money in 2012," Gaier said.  So it got the axe early.

Lately, NRG has increased its focus on renewables. It describes itself as "at the forefront of changing how people think about and use energy."

The company built, owns and operates the new solar array and wind turbines at Lincoln Financial Field, as well as at about a half dozen other major league sports stadiums.

Tom Gros, president of NRG Solutions, said the idea behind the NFL projects was not just to make power, but to make a statement.

"What you see in this array is a statement of our future," he told me in an interview earlier this year.

The Portland plant is located about 26 miles north of Bethlehem. The Titus plant is in Birdsboro, Berks County.