DEP extends for 2 years operating permit of B.L. England plant

Posted: July 24, 2014

New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection has extended for two years the operating permit of a Cape May County electric-generating plant that for decades has been ranked among the state's worst air polluters.

Under a previous DEP administrative consent order, the coal- and oil-fired B.L. England plant was scheduled to cease operations in May 2015 unless it was on track to convert to gas-fired generation. The plant has a generating capacity of about 300 megawatts.

A presence on the Great Egg Harbor River in Upper Township since the 1960s, the plant is among the state's leading contributors of pollutants that create smog and can aggravate asthma and other respiratory problems.

Rockland Capital Energy Investments L.L.C. of Houston acquired the plant in 2006 for $12.2 million from a subsidiary of the Atlantic City Electric Co. and has expressed an intention to convert it to gas.

In January, however, the New Jersey Pinelands Commission rejected a request by South Jersey Gas for a waiver allowing it to build part of a 22-mile natural gas pipeline through protected pineland forest. If the line had been approved, South Jersey Gas would have sold gas to the plant.

The comprehensive management plan for the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve bars construction of utility infrastructure, such as pipelines, transmission lines, and cell towers, in specially protected areas unless they primarily serve local residents.

Bob Marshall, executive director of New Jersey Energy Coalition, hailed the DEP's decision to extend the life of the coal-and-oil plant, saying it would likely give South Jersey Gas more time to seek a new waiver to build the controversial pipeline.

"This allows them to be open and running and a viable entity until whatever happens with the Pinelands Commission," Marshall said Tuesday.

South Jersey Gas referred queries Tuesday to Rockland Capital, which did not return a request for comment.

Marshall said he thought it likely that South Jersey Gas would seek approval for the same pipeline route it sought last year, but under a different kind of waiver than that which the commission rejected by a 7-7 vote.

"The production of energy is a very competitive business," Marshall said. "I think they're going to try to build along the route that's least expensive."

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, denounced the DEP's extension Tuesday as "unconscionable" and designed to give South Jersey Gas time to win a pipeline waiver.

Tittel also said that the extension may be in violation of new federal regulations controlling mercury emissions and that his organization would file a legal challenge seeking to overturn it.

"The plant was supposed to close years ago. The DEP cannot just extend without Environmental Protection Agency approval," he said.

Elias Rodriguez, a spokesman on air quality for the EPA's Region II office, based in New York, said it was "too early to say" how this specific facility would be affected by the new mercury and air toxics standards under the Clean Air Act.

Rodriguez called the administrative order a "state action" and indicated that it appeared to be within the purview of the DEP.

DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said the department based its decision in part on an April report by the Transmission Expansion Advisory Commission of PJM, the regional electrical grid operator, which concluded that the shutdown of B.L. England in May 2015 would result in "immediate and unavoidable reliability violations in several transmission circuits" that could lead to transmission line overloads.

"The key point of the [administrative consent order] is that it gives B.L. England another one or two years to work out its repowering options, because the pipeline didn't move through," Hajna said.

Hajna, who said the DEP wants the plant to convert to natural gas generation, said its order stipulates that the plant operator must use a lower-sulfur fuel in its oil-fired generator once its current fuel supply is depleted.

He also said the plant's remaining coal-burning generator was equipped with devices that reduced its mercury emissions, but he did not know by how much.

Burned sulfur produces sulfur dioxide, which the EPA has identified as a significant aggravator of asthma symptoms and bronchoconstriction. According to the agency's website, sulfur dioxide can combine with other compounds in the atmosphere to form small particles that "penetrate deeply into sensitive parts of the lungs and can cause or worsen respiratory disease, such as emphysema and bronchitis."

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