State, Bridgeport Wrestle With Hot Issue; Coal, Or No Coal?

While on a decline, coal still part of state's future, at least in short term

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"Beyond Coal" campaign
The Sierra Club's Onte Johnson canvasses the neighborhood surrounding the Bridgeport plant. Photo:Neena Satija
Mountain if Coal
A huge mound of coal lies next to the Bridgeport Harbor Power Station coal plant. Photo:Neena Satija
An impoverished neigborhood
The neighborhood surrounding the coal plant is one of Bridgeport's most impoverished areas. Photo:Neena Satija
The Changing Economics Of Coal
As coal becomes more expensive and the country embraces natural gas, PSEG has drastically cut its operating hours at the Bridgeport Coal Plant. Photo:Neena Satija -- graph via iChart
Towering Smokestack
While activists point to higher child asthma rates in Bridgeport, state environmental officials say the smokestack is high enough that emissions from the plant probably don't severely affect the immediate surrounding area. Photo:Neena Satija
Attempts to move "beyond coal" in Connecticut met with harsh realities
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Attempts to move "beyond coal" in Connecticut met with harsh realities

As the nation sheds the idea of “clean coal” for plentiful and even cleaner natural gas, environmental activists are hoping that they can push Connecticut to abandon coal as a power source. But that’s easier said than done.

The Bridgeport Harbor Station has been a fixture in this city for decades. Now primarily a coal-burning plant, it’s one of the city’s biggest taxpayers, and it's capable of powering about half a million customers. For Tamara Wood, who lives down the street from the plant, it’s this sound. 

[Wood imitates the noise of the plant.] "That’s exactly what it sounded like," she said. "All night long. Well, you know, at least it’s constant. I can fall asleep to it.

The South End is one of Bridgeport’s more impoverished neighborhoods, with stretches of run-down multi-family housing. Like most people who live here, Wood chose it for the cheap rent. Environmental activists say Bridgeport’s poor economic position is a major reason Connecticut’s last remaining coal plant is still here.

“It really is mind-boggling to me that we have to be dependent on a coal plant," said Onte Johnson, who grew up in Bridgeport and is now a community activist for the Sierra Club’s national “Beyond Coal” campaign. He’s spent the last several months trying to get New Jersey-based Public Service Electric & Gas, or PSEG, to retire the coal plant for something more environmentally friendly. Hundreds attended a public hearing in May over the renewal of the plant’s operating permit. But many Bridgeport residents aren’t yet convinced. Herbert Johnson has lived in the South End for decades.

“The Sierra club is trying to shut it down," he said. "But I have friends that work there, and from what they said, they’re saying that it’s clean.”

PSEG says it’s invested hundreds of millions in drastically reducing its mercury emissions and sulfur dioxide emissions in the last decade. And according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, or DEEP, the coal plant is in compliance with all state and federal environmental standards.

“Unit three is basically one of the cleanest coal plants in the nation," said Robert Silvestri, a senior environmental engineer for PSEG Power Connecticut.

The plant does spew out thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide in its peak years. But PSEG says it’s not a major source of pollution in Connecticut, where 95 percent of the pollution comes from out-of-state. And according to DEEP air pollution expert Sam Sampieri, the plant’s smokestack is high enough that most of its emissions blow downwind.

That means they probably don’t affect the Bridgeport area very much. Other local factors like traffic on I-95 are the more likely culprits when it comes to Bridgeport’s high rates of child asthma compared to the rest of the state.

“There could be many, many other aspects that could cause the high asthma rates in that area," said Sampieri, who is also a weatherman for Fox Connecticut. It’s an urban center, you can have background pollution from cars, you can also have construction pollution.”

But PSEG’s biggest argument in favor of the plant isn’t about emissions. Silvestri says that Connecticut still isn’t ready for a complete shift to nuclear, natural gas, and renewable energy sources. Coal still provides 2 percent of power in Connecticut.

“Coal has its place," Silvestri said. "There’s been a number of events where your natural gas plants or your oil plants can’t keep up with demand.”

Aging pipelines in New England mean even natural gas isn’t always a sure thing in times of high power needs – especially when weather events make an already-weak distribution system even worse.

Still, there’s no question that the economics are shifting in a different direction. As coal becomes more expensive, coal plants are shutting down. Even in the heart of coal country such as West Virginia, they’re simply not profitable anymore. And the idea that coal can really be “clean” hasn’t materialized since it was first embraced in the early 2000s.

 “In theory, you can burn coal and basically have nothing come out the smokestack at all, capture the CO2 and capture everything else," said David Downie, an environmental studies professor at Fairfield University. "But that’s very expensive, and no one does that.”

The changing economics of coal for PSEG are pretty clear. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the coal plant’s operating hours in 2011 were only a quarter of what they had been three years earlier. This year the unit has only run for around three hundred hours as of June. So there’s little doubt that in the next decade, there will be a change.

“Within a decade we’re going to have extremely plentiful environmentally advantageous natural gas here in Connecticut, so that’s kind of what the genesis was of the movement in Bridgeport to reconsider the coal plant," said Chris Bruhl, President of the Fairfield County Business Council.

But for the next few years, the plant is most likely here to stay – at least until there’s a clear transition plan.

“Can you remediate the site and then what’s its future use?" Bruhl asked. "The idea of having it just sitting there doing nothing, well, that’s totally unacceptable.”

Activists say they want the plant replaced with a greener energy source and for the people who work there to retain their jobs. But residents in Bridgeport are skeptical of what would really happen in a city that’s already rife with abandoned buildings and factories.

DEEP is expected to renew the plant’s operating permit in the coming weeks, but officials say that may come with some additional strings attached.

For more on this story, visit the Connecticut Mirror at ctmirror.org.