The conversion of the B.L. England power plant in Upper Township from a coal-powered generating station to one fueled by natural gas will be a win for taxpayers, residents and the owners of the plant.
Ironically, it might never have happened if the recession of 2008 had not occurred.
As Press staff writer Lee Procida reported Sunday, the owners of the plant, RC Cape May Holdings, and its parent company, Rockland Capital of Houston, originally intended to upgrade filters and scrubbers at the plant and already had the permits for the job.
But the national financial crisis meant they were unable to arrange financing for the project. They began to look for other options and settled on an ambitious natural gas conversion, expected to be completed by May 2016.
B.L. England, which sits on the Great Egg Harbor Bay in Beesleys Point, is one of the largest polluters in the state. The Environmental Protection Agency says the plant emits about 604,000 tons of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other pollutants every year. The new filters would have helped some, but the plant would have continued to burn coal and oil.
Coal pollution is especially damaging. It contains arsenic and lead and is the main source of sulfur dioxide in the air, which leads to acid rain. Smog and soot from burning coal aggravate respiratory diseases.
Coal plant emissions are also blamed for more than half of all mercury pollution. Mercury is a neurotoxin that damages brain functions. It accumulates in the fish in our waterways and is one of the reasons the state Department of Environmental Protection in May issued strict cautions about eating fish from New Jersey waters.
Converting the plant to natural gas is expected to reduce pollutants by 90 percent.
It will also benefit taxpayers. A few years ago, Upper Township officials were worried the plant might close and the township and the state would lose the energy-tax money it pays, money that helps keep township property taxes low. The conversion should extend the plant's life by 40 years.
That means preserving jobs at the plant, and adding 200 to 300 temporary construction jobs.
Converting to gas could cost $400 million, but because the new gas turbine will produce energy more efficiently, the energy can more easily to sold to the regional electrical grid. The project will also increase generating capacity from 450 to 585 megawatts. And the plant will become the largest single customer of South Jersey Gas.
The plan involves spending an estimated $91 million to run a 2-foot-wide, underground natural-gas pipeline 22 miles from Millville to Upper Township, a project not without its own environmental concerns. The preliminary route for the pipeline takes it through pinelands and wetlands areas, and there is potential for damaging rare plant species.
While it is important to make sure that doesn't happen, people concerned about the environment should look at the big picture. Shutting down the coal units at B.L. England is a win.