GenOn to pay $5 million Conemaugh pollution settlement

Source: http://www.post-gazette.com, June 6, 2011
By: Don Hopey

GenOn Northeast Management Co. has agreed to pay $5 million to settle charges that wastewater discharges from its Conemaugh coal-fired power plant into the Conemaugh River violated the federal Clean Water Act on 8,684 days since 2005.

The 13-page proposed settlement, which also requires the power plant located in New Florence, in southern Indiana County, to come into compliance with all federal water discharge regulations or face additional, automatic financial penalties, is expected to be filed today in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

The settlement comes less than three months after U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell issued a summary judgement ruling that the 1,711-megawatt power plant had regularly discharged excessive concentrations of mercury, iron, aluminium, manganese, selenium and boron into the Conemaugh River.

The federal lawsuit, filed by PennEnvironment, a statewide environmental organization, and the Sierra Club in April 2007, alleged that the 40-year-old power plant has discharged and continues to discharge illegal and potentially toxic levels of heavy metals in the 3 million gallons of wastewater it puts into the river each day.

The suit noted that the river has been designated as an “impaired” waterway by the state due to high concentrations of heavy metals, which can damage aquatic life and fish populations and inhibit recreation.

The $5 million penalty is the largest penalty ever paid in Pennsylvania to settle litigation based on federal “citizens suit” provisions. Such provisions are included in most federal environmental law and allow citizens or groups representing them to file lawsuits to compel compliance with the regulations.

The environmental groups filed the lawsuit because the state Department of Environmental Protection had agreed, in an undisclosed 2004 “side deal,” to delay enforcement of power plant’s discharge limits it set in 2001 until 2012.

GenOn must pay $3.5 million of the total penalty to the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds to establish the Conemaugh River Watershed Restoration Fund, to “support environmental restoration, preservation, and protection projects intended to benefit the Conemaugh River and its ecosystem,” according to the settlement agreement.

The company must also pay $250,000 to the federal government to settle violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act and the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law, and $1,250,000 to the plaintiff organizations to cover their legal expenses. The National Environmental Law Center, a Boston-based nonprofit law firm, represented the groups.

The settlement requires GenOn to immediately meet permitted discharge limits for iron, aluminum and manganese from its cooling tower effluent and all other waste stream discharges. It sets a Feb.1, 2012, deadline for the company to comply with selenium and boron water discharge limits from its flue gas desulfurization system. The company must also reduce its use of high manganese limestone in its flue gas pollution control system, and has two years to complete toxicity testing at its river discharge pipes.

Steve Davies, a GenOn spokesman, said Sunday that he’d heard a settlement had been reached but wasn’t able to comment on the specifics.

“It’s something we’re pleased about,” Mr. Davies said, “and anxious to put behind us.”

The power plant is operated by GenOn Northeast Management Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of GenOn Energy Inc., a Houston, Texas-based company formed in December 2010, when RRI Energy merged with Mirant Corp. It’s owned by a consortium of eight power companies, including GenOn.

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