Coal plant's tax power could be losing steam

The B.L. England power plant on the Great Egg Harbor Bay.

The B.L. England Generating Station in Upper Township will be converted from coal and oil power to natural gas under an agreement its owners are finalizing with the state to reduce the plant’s noxious emissions.

While the exact details and timeline of the plan are not yet available, officials said the conversion will dramatically decrease the amount of air pollutants spewed from the 49-year-old facility that is one of New Jersey’s largest carbon emitters.

The state Department of Environmental Protection originally directed the plant’s owners to make upgrades to its outdated coal-fired units by Tuesday, but the new plan will take the place of that original agreement once it is completed.

“This will be a very clean-operating unit, with one-tenth the emissions of the current plant,” said Ed Choromanski, director of the DEP Division of Air and Hazardous Materials Compliance and Enforcement.

Environmental advocates had been calling for the closing of the plant as the May 1 deadline to upgrade its equipment approached. The Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter planned to hold a rally in Trenton on Tuesday afternoon to pressure Gov. Chris Christie into retiring the plant.

“If they do repower with natural gas, there would have to be an assurance that that is going to be done in a timely fashion,” said Christine Guhl, an organizer for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Georgina Shanley, an Ocean City resident and co-founder of the local group Citizens United for Renewable Energy, still opposes the plan, saying the plant should be totally replaced with a form of renewable energy.

“The nonsense of dependence on oil and gas is really risky and damaging for our whole planet,” she said. “Enough already. We can do better than that.”

The B.L. England plant was built in 1963 along the Great Egg Harbor Bay in Beesleys Point and named after Bayard Lanning “Pat” England, a former president and chairman of Atlantic City Electric.

The plant’s cooling tower, which often confuses people into thinking it is a nuclear power plant, was built in 1974. A new stack, which was made to resemble a lighthouse and can be seen from miles away, was added in 1987.

Atlantic City Electric owned the plant until 2007, when it sold the property to RC Cape May Holdings, a subsidiary of Rockland Capital Energy Investments. Repeated calls made over several days to Rockland Capital’s main office near Houston regarding the conversion were not returned.

The plant employs about 75 people, and it has a production capacity of 447 megawatts of energy, but Choromanski said it rarely runs at capacity. He said one coal-fired unit will likely be shut down by the end of next year as part of the new agreement, while the one oil-fired unit will be converted for limited use.

The directive to upgrade the facility dates to 2006, when Atlantic City Electric and its parent corporation, Pepco Holdings, still owned the plant. That administrative consent order, or ACO, was amended last year with the new deadline of May 1, 2012.

“At the end of the day, this will be a much better agreement for the state than the initial ACO and the amendments,” DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said.

Mayor Richard Palombo said Upper Township officials have had several conversations with plant officials about the proposed conversion, and he said he supports it.

“It will ensure that there will be continuity,” he said, “and by switching over to natural gas from coal it will be a lot cleaner.”

Upper Township receives more than $6 million per year in state aid by hosting the plant, and those payments helped the government avoid a municipal tax until last year.

Shanley — whose concerns about air pollution carrying over to Ocean City led her to convince Ocean City Council to oppose the continued extension of the plant’s compliance with lower emissions standards — said the process for extracting natural gas should be a concern.

Guhl raised the same issue, saying more research into the effects of hydraulic fracturing to extract underground natural gas — commonly known as fracking — needs to be done.

“There are serious issues with natural gas, and we need strong regulations,” she said.

RC Cape May Holdings also announced earlier this year that it reached a deal with Greentech Global Energy to build a 4-megawatt solar energy facility and a park on the abandoned golf course next to the plant. Construction was set to begin mid-year.

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