One by one, 17 speakers ticked off reasons why Westmoreland County commissioners should oppose a Nebraska company’s plan to construct a $500 million natural gas-fueled power plant in South Huntingdon.
Passionately arguing their case Thursday, opponents said they’re concerned about the plant’s impact on the environment and the overall quality of life in the sedate, rural area just south of Interstate 70 and Route 31.
But in the end, the commissioners did not tell the speakers what they came to hear.
Instead, they said the matter is out of their hands.
It’s state officials who have the final word about whether Tenaska Pennsylvania Partners LLC can build the mammoth 930-megawatt facility on 50 acres of a 134-acre parcel, a project that has been in the planning stages since 2009.
“What would happen if a (natural gas) explosion would occur at Tenaska? All the dwellings south of the property would be affected,” said Joseph Kalinowski, whose 120 acres abut the site.
An explosion could impact nearby Yough Intermediate Middle School and Mendon Elementary School, both less than a mile from the site, said Kalinowski, who last year lost a lawsuit challenging the county’s approval of the land’s use for the power plant.
Tenaska Pennsylvania Partners, an affiliate of Tenaska Inc. of Omaha, intends to start building the plant this summer, with completion in three years, if its plans are approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
That start date has been a moving target for several years, shifting from 2011 to 2013 and now to this year, delays officials have said are tied to securing long-term commitments to purchase the power produced at the facility. A similar program in Lebanon County also has been delayed.
Tenaska officials said Thursday that they hope to address residents’ concerns at a public forum set for 6 to 8 p.m. Jan. 21 in the Turkeytown Fire Hall. Representatives from the state and Tenaska are scheduled to make presentations.
“Over nearly 30 years of developing natural gas-fueled power plants, we understand that residents and neighbors have questions. These are large capital projects with a number of facets that are unfamiliar to many people,” said Tenaska spokeswoman Timberly Ross.
“We have been in contact with landowners near the project site and local elected officials and community leaders many times since we first started developing the project in 2009,” she said. “Still, we expect questions and we invite them. This is why we are pleased to participate in the open house on Jan. 21.”
The proposed plant would generate enough electricity to service up to 1 million customers, company officials said. Electricity generated at the plant would be sold to energy providers between New Jersey and Chicago.
Cynthia Walter of Hempfield, a St. Vincent College associate professor of biology, told commissioners that the plant would add 8.4 million pounds of pollutants annually to the atmosphere.
“The DEP regulations are inadequate and out of date. You need qualified air and water studies,” said Walter, who was not speaking on behalf of the college.
Nick Kennedy, an attorney and community advocate for the Mountain Watershed Alliance, told commissioners that they should hire an expert to conduct an independent review that would be a “reasonable analysis” of Tenaska’s plans for the plant.
“The DEP is not infallible. It is within your power to ask for an independent review of this plant, so they (residents) can fully understand the effects and benefits … and allow for an open discussion,” said Kennedy, whose Melcroft-based environmental group seeks to protect the region’s waterways.
Commissioner Charles Anderson said the county has done its due diligence and said he would review the plans, but he did not commit to hiring an expert to conduct the county’s own analysis of the permits.
While Westmoreland officials can tell the state what the county wants in terms of the plant, “we can’t tell the state what to do,” said Commissioner Tyler Courtney.
State environmental regulators have issued permits for stormwater management and stream encroachment but have yet to issue permits for water quality management, an air quality plan or a road map for discharging water from the plant’s operations into the Youghiogheny River near Smithton.
Tenaska should be open to fully disclose its plans for the plant and its impact on the community, said Commissioner Ted Kopas.
The state has scheduled a public hearing for Feb. 11 to take testimony regarding outstanding permits for the plant.
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