A company called Renovo Energy Center LLC proposes to build a power plant, fired by fracked natural gas, in Renovo, along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.
The old railroad yard, where the plant will be located, is a site of serious soil and groundwater contamination. The soil contains lead, antimony, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, manganese, and many other cancer-causing contaminants, all in dangerously high concentrations.
Construction and utility workers will be exposed if not properly protected. The study of the site affirms that “unacceptable risks to human health exist in relation to residual soil and groundwater contamination.” Yet the community has not received answers to their questions. What are the Environmental Controls planned for use at the site? How effective will they be in containing the widespread contamination? What protections will be required for the hundreds of construction workers coming in to work on contaminated ground? What is being done to ensure that the neighbors do not breathe in contaminated dust during that several-year construction period? The contamination is so severe that restrictive covenants have been placed on the property. Who is prepared to monitor these highly contaminated sites?
The second area of concern is with the pollutants coming from the plant. Just because a power plant is fired by natural gas instead of coal does not mean that it is non-polluting. Gas-fired power plants are far from clean. The main pollutants coming from these plants are nitrogen oxides: NOx, or “Knocks.” Not only do Knocks cause respiratory problems, but they also react with other substances in the air to produce particulate matter and ozone. Particulate matter and ozone cause the extensive list of negative health outcomes you hear at the end of a prescription drug commercial — shortness of breath, heart attacks, premature death; the list goes on. In short, Knocks are bad news for human health.
Natural gas power plants do not move — they just sit there and emit Knocks when they are operating. These Knocks emissions will linger in the valley around Renovo, leading to serious health problems for the people living nearby. The Renovo plant is projected to emit over 300 tons of Knocks per year. TRIPLE the amount considered dangerous by scientists.
Emission levels can be “reduced” by a plant through buying Emission Reduction Credits (ERCs), compensating for the plant’s high emission levels by buying “credits” from another plant that has succeeded in reducing its levels. The Renovo plant will be using ERCs, buying credits from other places while it continues to emit dangerous pollutants for 30 years.
If built, every year the power plant will emit 300 tons of Nitrogen Oxides, 200 tons of particulate matter, approximately 54 tons of sulfur oxides and over 100 tons of volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde. All of these have serious negative health impacts.
And the effects of these emissions will extend beyond Renovo itself. Knocks and volatile organic compounds react to form ground-level ozone (or smog), which can cause and aggravate lung diseases and other respiratory issues. The Northeast, including Pennsylvania, is already considered an “ozone transport region” due to significant ozone pollution.
We have less than a decade to avoid the worst effects of climate change, this will not happen if we continue investing in fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide levels worldwide are higher today than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years and are projected to continue to rise as we move away from COVID restrictions. Allowing a plant to come online that’s projected to become the fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the state of Pennsylvania is simply unconscionable.
Members of a group called Renovo Residents for a Healthy Environment are working in Renovo to collect signatures on a petition asking DEP to reopen the comment period.
Reopening the comment period would allow residents of a community that has been largely kept in the dark to get answers to its most pressing questions. We need to look closely at what’s been left out.
The decision to proceed with plant construction should be delayed until our questions are answered. The future of our communities and of the planet itself are at stake.
Dr. Karen Elias is retired after teaching college for over 40 years and now lives in Lock Haven where she is working on using her writing in the service of activism.