Explaining The Central Landfill: Why it Matters

Jul 22, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

As an intern for CLF this summer, I am reviewing reports that reveal the severity of the Clean Air Act violations at the Central Landfill in Johnston, RI. CLF filed suit against the owners and operators of the Central Landfill in December 2013. Today, CLF is continuing work to stop the violations at the Central Landfill in order to remedy the risks to public health and the environment. In this blog series, you’ll learn about the issues at RI’s Central Landfill, and why they’re a problem for all people, not just those in Johnston and neighboring communities.

As a native of the coal fields in rural Appalachia, I’m no stranger to health and environmental risks from local activities. I understand firsthand that the direct and harmful impact of regulatory violations may seem far removed from everyday life. In Appalachia, many people know that coal mining is bad for our health and the environment, but few Appalachian natives pay much thought to the mines – even when people get sick – because these mines are such an ingrained part of our lives. When you’re caught up in the busy-ness of day-to-day living, it can become easy to forget that clean, healthy air should be the norm, not the exception.

At the same time, the regulations designed to safeguard people and the environment from the harmful impacts of activities such as mining coal or operating a landfill can seem of little consequence in our daily lives, but their positive effects are real.

I think it’s fair to say that’s been the case with the Central Landfill, which has been allowed to pollute our local air for so long that it’s simply become the norm for too many of the people living in its shadow. The gases the landfill emits are not only bad for the physical health of its immediate neighbors, however. On a broad scale, fugitive emissions like the kind generated by the landfill contribute to global warming, which means they have real and lasting effects for people everywhere. Those gases can be used beneficially, but the consequences of irresponsibly handling them – as the Central Landfill has been doing for years – are too significant to be ignored.

Landfill gas is between 45% to 60% methane. Methane’s climate change impact is 25 times greater than carbon-dioxide. When the Central Landfill’s gas collection system fails, it allows methane to contaminate the atmosphere.

The remaining components of landfill gas are carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, benzene, and ammonia. Back in 2011, hydrogen sulfide escaping from Central Landfill caused a potent rotten egg smell. (See PDF from Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation.) Although the rancid odor was perhaps the most immediately noticeable problem, that was just the canary in the coalmine. The odor has recurred since then and other issues are ongoing.

In the coming weeks, you’ll learn about four issues at the Central Landfill: how the Central Landfill’s owners and operators have failed to collect gas, failed to destroy volatile organic compounds, emitted sulfur dioxide into the air, and failed to obtain a single permit to protect people against these systemic and recurring issues. These multiple failures have had profound impacts on the health of local residents – not to mention the health of our overheating climate.

By stopping the violations at Central Landfill, CLF is working to improve environmental and public health. Coming from coal country, where the health impacts of the mines have too often been ignored, it’s refreshing to see people here in Rhode Island stand up and push for change.

Holyoke’s Coal-Fired Mt. Tom Power Plant Announces Formal Shutdown Date

Sep 24, 2014 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Mt. Tom’s owners announced this summer that they would retire the 54-year-old coal plant, and yesterday, GDF Suez filed the official request with the electric system operator to retire this last Massachusetts coal-fired power plant by June 2018. This is great news for the residents who have breathed the pollution from Mt. Tom since it first began operation in 1960. This follows the recent announcement by Somerset’s Brayton Point, the largest coal-fired power plant in New England, that it will retire by June 2017, and the final shutdown of Salem Harbor Station earlier this year.

This request to retire, if approved, will obligate Mt. Tom’s owners to retire the facility permanently, and marks the formal finish for coal in Massachusetts. Conservation Law Foundation has been fighting for decades to reveal the dismal economics of coal and to support an effective transition to sustainable clean energy in New England. This announcement comes only a year after Mt. Tom’s owners were required to install new monitors to measure soot from the facility as the result of a 2011 call by CLF for enforcement of more than 2,500 Clean Air Act violations at the facility.

Holyoke is better prepared than most communities for this retirement because of the work of a local coalition, Action for a Healthy Holyoke, and the statewide Coal Free Massachusetts coalition. These groups, along with CLF, have been working to create a better future for Holyoke for years, and, as a result, the City has been evaluating potential impacts of retirement and potential re-use options for more than two years. Recent legislation will help them further that work with a formal re-use study supported by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

Renewable energy is on the horizon for Holyoke. Earlier this year, based on CLF’s coal pant retirement work in Salem and Somerset, CLF garnered an important commitment from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to direct the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) to offer host communities, like Holyoke, up to $2 million to develop a clean energy strategy, including the construction of a renewable energy project within the community. Thanks to that commitment, Holyoke will have the opportunity to work with DOER to move toward cleaner energy either on the site of the retired plant or elsewhere within the community.

CLF will work to ensure that Mt. Tom’s request to retire permanently is approved in the coming months to create an opportunity for new resources to come on-line, and will continue to work to build a clean and sustainable energy future for New England.

Breathing Easier: Long Overdue National Action for Cleaner Air Blessed by the Supreme Court

May 2, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

While New England has often led the nation in controlling air pollution, we have often had to contend with bad air blowing in from those states to our west that are less protective of the health of their citizens – those states allow power plants to dump dangerous pollutants into our shared air.

Fortunately, the federal Clean Air Act empowered (and in fact directed) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take action to reduce dangerous air pollution across the nation in order both to reduce the massive harm to communities near power plants and reduce harmful air pollution blowing in to “downwind” states. This is very important as here in New England we live with the reality of being “downwind” every day.


In New England, we live “downwind” of harmful air pollution from other states. The Supreme Court’s ruling should help us all breathe a little easier. Photo ©EcoPhotography.

All of us here in New England should breathe a little bit easier, then, thanks to the April 29 decision by the Supreme Court upholding EPA’s regulations designed to control and reduce pollution blowing across state lines.

The history of the implementation of the “Good Neighbor” provision of the Clean Air Act, which directly addresses this question of air pollution from one state causing harm in another place, is long, tortured and tangled. It is only worth revisiting the last couple of chapters of that long saga. We can start in 2005 when the administration of George W. Bush proposed a weak regulation that claimed to implement the Good Neighbor Provision through a regulation called the “Clean Air Interstate Rule” or CAIR. The courts, however, rejected CAIR as flawed, sending EPA back to the drawing board. After much process and delay, a new and much better regulation known as the “Cross-State Air Pollution Rule,” or CSPAR, was rolled out. Sadly, a divided panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that EPA had not followed the law appropriately when it wrote that regulation.

This brings us back to the present, and the Supreme Court’s decision in EPA v. EME Homer City Generation – finding that EPA had acted within its authority and within the instructions it was given by Congress in creating CSPAR.

Some commentators have suggested that this decision, along with the D.C. Circuit’s recent action to uphold the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (known as “MATS”), constitutes a legal winning streak for EPA.

But it isn’t really EPA who wins when these regulations move forward. All of us – and in particular the most vulnerable members of our communities like our children, the elderly and our neighbors with respiratory problems – are the winners when our air is cleaner.

EPA is led today by Gina McCarthy, a longtime Massachusetts environmental regulator who started her career as the town health agent in Canton, Massachusetts, and rose up through the ranks of Massachusetts government. She later served as the head of the environmental protection agency in Connecticut. So we should not be surprised when pioneering efforts to protect the public by reducing power plant pollution incubated here have gone national under her leadership. But Gina did not do it alone; she was part of a team of public and private guardians of the public health and the environment.

For decades CLF has been a proud part of that team and we point to this story of state and regional efforts blazing a path for the nation as an answer to the question of why we fight so hard to reduce pollution here when that pollution is part of a larger national and global problem.

We recognize that, just as harmful pollution can travel across the country, so too good ideas and approaches to solving problems will spread on the metaphorical wind.

As Justice Ginsburg wrote in EPA v. EME Homer City (joined it should be noted by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts over the objections expressed in a rather confused dissenting opinion presented by Justice Scalia joined by Justice Thomas):

Some pollutants stay within upwind States’ borders, the wind carries others to downwind States, and some subset of that group drifts to States without air quality problems. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.” The Holy Bible, John 3:8 (King James Version). In crafting a solution to the problem of interstate air pollution, regulators must account for the vagaries of the wind.

To which we can only add, amen. With a recognition that our attempts to foster protection of the public health and environment must also account for the vagaries of the political and public policy winds as we craft and release strategies and approaches that first reduce pollution here but can then spread and replicate across the land.

CLF Files Citizen Suit for Clean Air Act Violations at RI’s Central Landfill

Dec 16, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »


The owners and operators of the Central Landfill are required by law to collect and control this landfill gas. This isn’t happening.

Today CLF filed a citizen suit against the owners and operators of the Central Landfill in Johnston, Rhode Island, for releasing polluted landfill gas into Rhode Island’s air in violation of the Clean Air Act. Landfill gas poses risks to human health, causes foul odors, and contributes to climate change. Read on for a summary of CLF’s lawsuit.

What’s wrong at the Landfill? As waste breaks down in the Landfill, it produces landfill gas. Landfill gas contains methane (a powerful greenhouse gas), hydrogen sulfide (a toxic air pollutant that also smells like rotten eggs), and volatile organic compounds (a family of gases that includes toxic and hazardous pollutants). The owners and operators of the Landfill are required by law to collect and control this landfill gas. That isn’t happening here. CLF’s lawsuit lays out several specific failures at the Landfill:

1. The owners and operators are not collecting enough landfill gas. The air at the surface of the Landfill contains too much methane, meaning that landfill gas is escaping through the ground without being collected. We also know the gas collection system isn’t working because many of the collection wells are flooded, and because the tops of many of these wells contain oxygen-rich air instead of methane-rich landfill gas. Gas that’s not being collected by the collection system is escaping into the air as so-called “fugitive emissions” in violation of the Clean Air Act.

2. The owners and operators of the Landfill illegally burned untreated landfill gas. Burning landfill gas that contains hydrogen sulfide causes a chemical reaction resulting in emissions of sulfur dioxide (which causes respiratory-system damage). For this reason, the Landfill’s owners and operators are generally required to treat the gas for hydrogen sulfide before they burn it. But earlier this year, they burned untreated gas for well over a month, resulting in a spike in sulfur dioxide emissions. By burning untreated gas, the owners and operators failed to use the “best available control technology” for landfill gas as the Clean Air Act requires, and they evaded permitting requirements as well.

3. The owners and operators have operated three landfill-gas flares inadequately, resulting in excess emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). A flare’s ability to destroy VOCs in landfill gas depends on the temperature at which the gas is burned and the amount of time the gas spends being burned. When temperatures are too low and gas is moving too fast, a flare can’t adequately destroy VOCs. And that’s what’s happening at the Landfill: three flares are receiving too much landfill gas and burning it at too-low temperatures, so harmful VOCs are entering our air instead of being destroyed.

4. These failures are all the result of a larger permitting failure at the Landfill. Since 1997, the Clean Air Act has required the Landfill to have an operating permit. Sixteen years later, it still does not have one. A thoughtful, comprehensive operating permit could clarify the responsibilities of the various owners and operators of the Landfill and help ensure that landfill gas gets collected and destroyed as the Clean Air Act requires.

CLF’s Rhode Island state director Tricia Jedele and I have spent well over a year working to figure out what’s wrong at the Landfill, our interest piqued by the severe odor problems there in 2011. Even we didn’t expect to find as many problems as we did. But now that we’ve found them, it’s time to fix them. The Landfill can stop filling our air with polluted gas that poses risks to human health, causes foul odors, and contributes to climate change – and by filing this lawsuit, we’re looking to make that happen.

Learn more about our CLF in Rhode Island and our Clean Energy and Climate Change work. 

CLF’s Case Against PSNH’s Coal Plant for Clean Air Act Violations Moves Forward

Dec 5, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment


Yesterday, CLF won a resounding early victory in our 2011 federal lawsuit against Merrimack Station, Public Service of New Hampshire’s (PSNH) coal-fired power plant in Bow, for blatant violations of the federal Clean Air Act.

The impetus for our suit dates back to 2008 and 2009, when PSNH made major upgrades to Merrimack Station that allowed the plant to increase its emissions of air pollution — upgrades that triggered permit and other requirements under federal law (and under the state regulations implementing federal law). But PSNH didn’t get those required permits and continues to operate the plant without complying with the modern limits on the plant’s air pollution that should apply. Even after constructing a $422 million scrubber, which helps reduce some pollution from the plant, PSNH still emits more pollution than federal law requires, harming air quality and public health.

CLF brought the suit against PSNH in 2011, seeking penalties (payable to federal taxpayers) and immediate compliance with the law.

It’s been more than two years since I last provided an update on the litigation. During that time, CLF has been fighting diligently to move the case forward. In numerous briefs, CLF urged U.S. District Court Chief Judge Joseph Laplante to reject PSNH’s motion to dismiss. CLF also brought to light additional Clean Air Act violations associated with PSNH’s upgrade projects and petitioned the Court to consider those violations as part of the original case.

Yesterday, Chief Judge Laplante issued an order (PDF) that denied PSNH’s motion to dismiss and granted CLF’s request to bring new claims. The Court agreed with CLF that PSNH’s motion relied on the wrong rules, holding that the motion’s foundation “cannot bear weight”; the Court also determined that CLF followed all applicable requirements to bring its new claims in the lawsuit.

Judge Laplante’s ruling means that our case against PSNH can finally move forward. Now, CLF will have the opportunity to work with engineering and other experts, obtain more documentation from PSNH, and ultimately prove our allegations to the Court.

As regulators and legislators consider the future of Merrimack Station and PSNH’s other inefficient, costly power plants, CLF will be working to ensure that PSNH is held accountable and isn’t allowed a free pass to evade the bedrock requirements of the Clean Air Act.

Accomplishing Good Things Quietly: CLF On New England’s Electricity Grid

Apr 18, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

As New England’s leading environmental organization, CLF has more than 60 staff people who work every day for healthy communities, clean water, and to reduce carbon emissions that cause climate change.

Sometimes we win big victories that make headlines, like when my colleague, Shanna Cleveland, won a major victory in federal court that required the permanent shuttering of the Salem Harbor coal-fired power plant. You can see more about Shanna’s victory here; and you can learn more about CLF’s coal-free New England program, here.

Other times, CLF’s work is much quieter, and behind the scenes, in obscure forums that no one has ever heard of. And CLF sometimes accomplishes good things very quietly.

I recently participated in one of these quiet victories. CLF is an active, voting participant in the New England Independent System Operator (ISO-NE), the operator of the regional electricity system. You can read more about CLF’s work with ISO-NE here. Very few environmental organizations participate in this important forum and, of the few that do, CLF is by far the most active.

One of the things that the ISO is most concerned about is the “system reliability” of New England’s electricity grid. System reliability basically means that when you or I turn a light switch, the lights actually go on. No one wants to see power outages or blackouts, and the ISO’s concern with system reliability is sensible.

One of the things the ISO has been doing of late to improve New England’s “system reliability” is to encourage the owners of gas-powered electricity-generating plants to install dual-fuel capability that would allow those plants to burn oil during periods of natural gas shortage – that is, allow those plants to be more reliable. Part of the ISO’s plan was to make sure that, when such a gas shortage arose, these power-plant owners could and would get compensated properly for burning oil, which costs much more than natural gas.

Of course, burning oil to make electricity is also much, much more polluting than burning natural gas. And the way the ISO was going to structure this new system would have provided no reason for generators to burn gas when gas was actually available – because those generators would be fully compensated regardless of which fuel they burned.

CLF reluctantly accepts that some of these generators will burn oil on those very, very rare occasions (at most a few times a year) when cleaner fuels truly are not available. (Of course, an even better idea is to reduce demand by efforts like turning down electricity use in places like factories and large stores; and CLF has long worked to promote programs that pay for and encourage such “demand response” efforts.) And such burning of oil is always limited by the air-pollution permits (under the Clean Air Act) of the generators. At the same time, CLF wanted to make sure that ISO rules would never allow compensation to an electricity generator for burning a dirtier fuel when a much cleaner fuel actually is available (which is nearly always).

None of the ISO experts realized the potential danger of the ISO’s proposed rule change at the time it was being discussed. None of the electricity generators pushed to prevent the originally proposed rule change from going through. Why would they? They were going to get fully compensated for burning a dirty fuel even when a cleaner fuel was available!

But CLF noticed the problem, and was willing to push for a change. As of this writing, I am cautiously optimistic that our proposed change will be approved by the ISO (and later by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, that oversees and must approve ISO rule changes). The change that CLF pushed for would allow electricity generators to get compensated for burning a higher-priced, dirtier fuel only on those very rare occasions when cleaner, cheaper fuel is truly not available.

Ratepayers benefit because we are assuring the use of the lower-cost fuel whenever possible. And the environment benefits because we are assuring the use of the cleaner fuel whenever possible.

As I say: this was certainly a small victory. But if we are going to be able to address the threat of climate change successfully, it will take hundreds of victories in a variety of forums. Some of those will be big wins, like Shanna’s federal court victory in the Salem Harbor case. And others will be small, incremental steps in obscure forums like the ISO.

Storm Clouds Gather Over Brayton Point

Dec 14, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Frank C. Grace, www.trigphotography.com

Frank C. Grace, www.trigphotography.com

Coal-fired power is dying, not only across the nation, but across New England as well.  The region’s coal-fired power plant fleet has started to succumb to the costs of operating a coal-fired dinosaur in the age of energy efficiency, growing renewable electricity generation, and–for now–low natural gas prices.

Predominantly coal-fired Brayton Point Station in Somerset, Massachusetts, is the state’s largest single source of carbon emissions (producing over 6 million tons in 2010). Another harmful pollutant emitted by Brayton Point is particulate matter, which is measured daily by monitors that continuously check the opacity of the soot coming out of the plant’s smokestack. Brayton has been violating their limits for emitting that soot, and failing to monitor their emissions of several other harmful pollutants. Yesterday, CLF filed a notice of intent to sue Brayton’s current owners, Dominion Resources, for those violations. CLF’s upcoming lawsuit is just the latest in a growing list of bad news for Dominion and Brayton Point.

As New England’s other coal plants started to close or teeter on the edge of closure, Brayton Point Station was expected to be the last coal plant standing in the region. It is New England’s largest coal-fired power plant, and in the past decade its current owners, Dominion Resources, sank over $1 billion in pollution control upgrades into the behemoth. While Brayton Point does not have the kind of legal protection from market realities that PSNH exploits to prop up its dirty old coal generation in New Hampshire, many had assumed that Brayton Point was well-positioned to survive in the changing power generation landscape.

source: EPA and ISO-NE data

But the relentless pressure of low natural gas prices and the costs of starting up and operating an enormous coal-fired power plant have begun to affect every corner of the coal generation market in New England, and Brayton Point has not been spared. The plant’s “capacity factor,” which reflects the amount of power the plant generated compared to the amount of power it could have generated if used to its full potential, has taken a nosedive over the past three years. A plummeting capacity factor means that it is a better economic choice for a plant’s owners to keep it idle most of the time than to operate.

Dominion Resources, clearly, has seen the writing on the wall for coal in New England. After signing a binding agreement to cease coal operations at Salem Harbor Station as a result of CLF’s lawsuit against that plant, Dominion sold the Salem plant earlier this year. Following closely on the heels of the Salem sale, the company put Brayton Point on the market in September. While Dominion is marketing Brayton as a modern coal-fired power plant due to its recent billion-dollar pollution control investments, UBS recently assessed [PDF] the value of those investments (and the plant itself) at zero.

Brayton Point’s plummeting capacity factor and bleak sale prospects reflect both the current power of low natural gas prices and the weakness of these old, out-dated coal plants.  That trend will continue as the New England energy market continues to move forward with better integration of efficiency, conservation and renewable generation. Dark clouds are rising over Brayton Point. In the meantime, CLF and our partners will work diligently to hold the Brayton Point power plant accountable for producing its own dark clouds of pollution in violation of the law.

Salem Harbor Enforced Shutdown: The Beginning of the End for Old Coal in New England

Feb 10, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Protest at Salem Harbor Power Plant. Courtesy of Robert Visser / Greenpeace.

This week the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and HealthLink secured an Order from the US District Court in Massachusetts requiring Salem Harbor power plant owner Dominion to shut down all four units at the 60-year-old coal-fired power plant by 2014. In bringing a clear end to the prolonged decline of Salem Harbor Station, this settlement ushers in a new era of clean air, clean water and clean energy for the community of Salem, MA, and for New England as a whole.

The court’s order is based on a settlement with Dominion to avoid CLF’s 2010 lawsuit alleging violations of the Clean Air Act from going to trial. The terms of the settlement, which can be found here, ensure that:

  • Units 1 and 2 at the plant must retire (indeed are retired) by December 31, 2011; Unit 3 by June 2014;
  • Dominion may not repower the retired coal-burning units, even if a buyer for the power was to come forward;
  • Neither Dominion, nor any successor, may use coal as fuel for generating electricity on that site in the future;
  • Dominion must fund projects of at least $275,000 to reduce air pollution in Salem and surrounding municipalities that have been impacted by the plant’s emissions.

The settlement, and the legal actions which led to it, provide a template to force plant shutdowns as changing market conditions, public health concerns and cleaner energy alternatives push the nation’s fleet of old, polluting dinosaurs to the brink. What makes this outcome unique is that, as part of its advocacy strategy, CLF filed a successful protest at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington DC which effectively prevented Dominion from collecting above market costs for operating this aging and inefficient power plant. This first-ever ruling by FERC is in stark contrast to coal power plant retirements in other areas of the country which were brought about by agreements to pay (i.e., compensate) plant owners for shutting down their plants. In the case of Salem Harbor Station, retirement resulted from legal action to deny the plant’s owner compensation and cost-recovery by ratepayers.

A little background: Most of the nation’s coal-burning fleet, were designed, constructed and began operation in the 1950’s and 60’s. More than 60% of them have been operating for 40 years or more, meaning that they are now beyond their useful design lives. This is the case for all of New England’s remaining plants, which generally were built more than 50 years ago. In addition to the excess pollution and inordinate adverse impact these plants impose to public health and the environment, they are finding it difficult to compete with newer, cleaner and more efficient power producing technology. In the market, the day of reckoning has arrived. New England’s coal-fired power plants are losing their shirts. They are rarely asked to run by ISO-New England, the operator of our regional electricity system, because their power is more costly (i.e., out-of-market) than the region’s cleaner and more efficient power generating fleet.

So why don’t they all retire? Unfortunately, there are several factors that can, in many instances, complicate matters. For Salem Harbor Station: system reliability (i.e., keeping the lights on). Because these plants were built so long ago, and unfortunately in close proximity to population centers where demand for power is greatest, the system was designed assuming that electricity is being generated at these locations. Thus, removing electricity generation from these sites can create reliability risks at times of peak electricity consumption. This was the case for Salem Harbor. Try as we might (including NStar’s recent $400 million transmission upgrade in the North Shore), when ISO-NE modeled worst case conditions, it still found that Salem Harbor was needed for reliability and consequently required ratepayers to pay to maintain Salem Harbor, even though its power was far more expensive to produce than more modern plants. To break this logjam, CLF filed a protest at FERC claiming that ratepayers were getting bilked (in legalese: paying rates that were unjust and unreasonable) and that a small investment to develop a reliability alternative for the plant would save the ratepayers money and would safeguard public health.

FERC agreed — at least with the money part (as FERC is a financial, not environmental regulatory agency). Its December 2010 order granting CLF’s protest compelled ISO-NE and the region’s electricity market participants to expedite the process for developing reliability alternatives for Salem Harbor’s expensive power (in utility parlance, to replace its “reliability function”). Shortly thereafter, ISO-NE crafted a new plan that will keep the lights on at reasonable cost to customers, while also creating a more flexible, reliable grid.

The new plan calls for simple and relatively inexpensive electric transmission line upgrades that will meet the area’s reliability needs without Salem Harbor Station and allow for the deployment of newer and cleaner energy resources like energy efficiency, conservation and renewables such as wind and solar. As soon as the plan was approved in May of 2011, the die was cast and Salem Harbor’s retirement became imminent. To its credit, the very next day Dominion announced that the plant would be shut down. As we all know, corporation’s make decisions based primarily on economics; once FERC denied them the above-market rates they had been collecting for years to maintain the plant, Dominion was compelled to retire the plant. Couple that with the prospect of major expenditures for pollution upgrades that would result from CLF and Healthlink’s lawsuit, there was only one rational outcome. Good-bye Salem Harbor station. Next up (or should I say, down): Mt. Tom, Brayton Point, both of which are uneconomic and facing the end of the road.

As I said in a joint press statement with Healthlink (found here), “This outcome sends a signal to coal plant operators everywhere that they cannot avoid costs through noncompliance with the Clean Air Act. These obsolete plants that either have decided not to invest in technology upgrades or are retrofitting at ratepayers’ expense are doomed: they are staring down the barrel of cheaper and cleaner alternatives to their dirty power and public and regulatory pressure to safeguard human health. When these plants can no longer get away with breaking the law as a way to stave off economic collapse, I predict we will see a wave of shutdowns across the country.”

The history of Salem Harbor Station is both long and tortured (recall then-Governor Romney standing at the gates of the plant in 2003 and saying that the plant was killing people). Despite its bleak financials and unjustifiable damage to public health and the environment, Salem Harbor Station continued to operate and pollute for a decade or more beyond when it should have succumbed to age and obsolescence.

Shanna Cleveland, staff attorney at CLF said, “The Court’s Order coupled with our successful FERC protest have finally put an end to a half century of toxic and lethal air pollution from Salem Harbor Station. The very factors that have been propping the power plant up for years beyond its useful life – cheap coal, lax environmental oversight, and overdue reliability planning – have been pulled out from under it.”

For more, including quotations from said Jane Bright of HealthLink and Massachusetts State Representative Lori A. Ehrlich, as well as more background on CLF’s Salem Harbor Station Advocacy, read the press release here.

It’s Time to Stop Subsidizing PSNH’s Dirty Power

Feb 1, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Outlook with your head in the sand? Pretty dark, even when the future around you is bright. (photo credit: flickr/tropical.pete)

In a public hearing tomorrow, a legislative committee of the New Hampshire House will take up a proposal – House Bill 1238 – to force Public Service of New Hampshire’s dirty, costly power plants to confront the realities of the electric marketplace. The bill would require PSNH to sell (“divest”) its plants by the end of next year. Tomorrow’s hearing on House Bill 1238 is scheduled for 8:30 am in Representatives Hall under the dome of the New Hampshire State House, on North Main Street in Concord.

The debate is long overdue and comes at a critical time. Over the last several years, New England’s restructured electric market has overwhelmingly turned away from uneconomic facilities like PSNH’s coal and oil-fired power plants and toward less-polluting alternatives, especially natural gas. For most New England customers, this technology transition has resulted in lower electric bills, and we have all benefited from cleaner air. In the next few years, well-managed competitive markets are positioned to help us move to a real clean energy future that increases our use of energy efficiency, renewable resources, demand response, and innovative storage technologies.

CLF has played a key role in this process by, among other things, ensuring that coal plants are held accountable for their disastrous impacts on public health and the environment. As highlighted in an excellent op-ed in the Concord Monitor this week, CLF’s work includes our federal court case against PSNH’s Merrimack Station, New Hampshire’s biggest source of toxic and greenhouse gas emissions, which has repeatedly violated the Clean Air Act by failing to get permits for major changes to the plant.

Meanwhile, like the proverbial ostrich, PSNH gets to ignore what the market is saying. PSNH’s state-protected business model is a relic that has become a major drag on the pocketbooks of New Hampshire ratepayers and New Hampshire’s economy. Current law protects PSNH from market forces because it guarantees PSNH and its Connecticut-based corporate parent Northeast Utilities a profit on investments in PSNH’s power plants, whether or not they operate and whether or not they actually make enough money to cover their operating costs – an astounding rule for the small-government Granite State, to be sure.

The costs of this guarantee fall on the backs of New Hampshire residents and small business people, who effectively have no choice but to pay for PSNH’s expensive power. For their part, larger businesses have fled PSNH in droves, for cheaper, better managed suppliers. This has shrunk the group of ratepayers who are responsible for the burden of PSNH’s high costs, translating into even higher rates for residents and small businesses.

PSNH customers face the worst of both worlds – electric rates that are among the highest in the nation and a fleet of aging, inefficient, and dirty power plants that would never survive in the competitive market.

It is by now beyond dispute that these plants are abysmal performers. Last year, CLF and Synapse Energy Economics presented an analysis to New Hampshire regulators showing that the coal-fired units at PSNH’s Schiller Station in Portsmouth will lose at least $10 million per year over the next ten years, for a total negative cash flow of $147 million. The analysis did not depend on natural gas prices remaining as low as they are now or any new environmental costs; because it is old and inefficient, Schiller will lose money even if gas prices go up and it doesn’t need any upgrades. According to information provided by PSNH to regulators last week, PSNH’s supposed workhorse Merrimack Station will not even operate for five months this year because it would be uneconomic compared to power available in the New England market. Nonetheless, PSNH ratepayers will be paying for the plant even when it does not run.

It will only get worse: PSNH’s rates could skyrocket later this year if New Hampshire regulators pass on the bill for PSNH’s $422 million investment in a scrubber for Merrimack Station to ratepayers, and other costly upgrades of PSNH’s fleet may be necessary to comply with environmental and operational requirements in the future. And the PSNH-favored Northern Pass project, if it ever gets built, would only exacerbate the situation for PSNH ratepayers by making PSNH power even less competitive and reducing the value of PSNH power plants.

PSNH is hitting back against House Bill 1238 with its typical full-court press of lobbying and PR, and we can expect a packed house of PSNH apologists at tomorrow’s hearing. PSNH has even resorted to starting a Facebook page – “Save PSNH Plants” – where you can see PSNH’s tired arguments for preserving the current system plants as a “safety net” that protects PSNH employee jobs and a hedge against unforeseen changes in the energy market. The pitch is a little like saying that we should pay Ford and its workers to make Edsels half a century later, just in case the price of Prius batteries goes through the roof. Make no mistake: PSNH is asking for the continuation of what amounts to a massive ratepayer subsidy for as far as the eye can see.

Public investments have gotten a bad name lately, but it is at least clear that sound commitments of public dollars to energy should be targeted, strategic, and forward-thinking. They should help move us, in concert with the much larger capital decisions of the private sector, toward a cleaner energy future. Instead, PSNH is fighting for New Hampshire to keep pouring its citizens’ hard-earned money, year after year, into dinosaur power plants. That’s a terrible deal for New Hampshire, and CLF welcomes the House’s effort to open a discussion on how to get us out of it.