NORTHAMPTON, Pa. - Protect our children, Northampton residents implored the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on Tuesday night.
About 50 people attended a DEP hearing on a request by Northampton Generating, Inc., to increase the amount of lead it can emit into the air at itsNo borough facility.
That request was opposed by all 13 people who testified at the hearing, which was held in Northampton Memorial Community Center.
DEP officials were informed of nine known cases of children living near the electric plant who have autism, which is believed to be caused by too much exposure to lead.
"It's an epidemic," declared Northampton resident Tom Sedor. "There's something radically wrong here."
Sedor said those nine children "right around that plant" with autism include his grandson.
Rather than allowing Northampton Generating to increase the amount of lead emitted, Sedor suggested the state investigate the link between what's already coming out of the plant's stack and those autism cases.
The hearing did not begin with a detailed summary of the electric plant's case, only that DEP received the company's request to increase its lead emissions in October 2014.
The 20-year-old plant is along Horwith Drive, south of Route 329. It produces 112-megawatts of electricity, which it provides to Met-Ed.
The plant is surrounded on three sides by residential neighborhoods. Northampton Area High School and Northampton Middle School also are nearby.
Resident Erin Schatenka told the DEP: "If you approve Northampton Generating Company's request, you're allowing one company to put the entire community— thousands of people — at risk for a multitude of serious health problems.
"I'm asking you to deny their proposal and put the best interest of our community and future generations first."
Many residents who testified said they can see the power plant from their homes.
Northampton resident Greg Reimer said he's called EPA and DEP several times late at night and early in the morning because his neighborhood "reeks" from the plant.
Reimer said DEP repeatedly promised to send someone into his neighborhood to test the air, but no one ever came.
"Many times at night, your eyes will burn from this junk coming out of there," said resident Douglas Dodge.
Dodge said that problem also has been reported several times, but indicated the situation has not improved.
A few people who testified called on DEP to require "real time," continuous on-line monitoring of toxic pollutants, so the public can learn about emissions coming from the plant.
Borough resident Charles Mcnally, who said he's from San Diego, told DEP officials: "We wouldn't even be having this discussion in California. This meeting would be about shutting that plant down — not about letting them spew more crud all over my daughters.
"I don't want my kids getting sick and I don't want anybody else's kids getting sick."
Several people testified that DEP fined the company $120,000 for air quality violations a couple of years ago.
"And now we're supposed to let them just run unbridled?" asked Sedor.
"I can see the plant from my house," said Northampton resident Barry Pope. "My two neighbors across the street have kids with autism. One behind them has autism. Now I found out others are in the area."
Pope said his step-children grew up in Northampton.
"Now I have a grandson, who turned four the other day, definitely diagnosed with autism. Is that from my daughter living here? I don't know. I'm not a doctor. But it sure seems it.
"Do not let them do this," Pope urged DEP.
"I come here as a grandma," testified resident Rosemary Rossner. "I can see the plant in front of my house. Behind me lives my daughter, who has a three-year-old. She's autistic."
In April, said Rossner, she sent a letter to both the plant manager and its environmental manager, but never received a reply.
"It's easy to throw letters into the trash," she said. "But it's not easy to say that our autistic children are trash. Nor are the numbers of our autistic children invalid.
"Our children deserve better. Our neighborhoods deserve better. And we deserve better."
"Do we really need to roll out autistic children to make our point?" asked Mcnally.
Kayla O'Connor, who moved to Northampton two years ago, said she fears for both the future reproductive health of her six-year-old daughter and for the health of the children her daughter will have someday.
O'Connor said she loves Northampton, but if she would be buying a house now she would not move to the town because lead emissions from the power plant might be increased.
"I ask that you do not do this," O'Connor told DEP.
During pregnancy, testified Russell Zerbo of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, exposure to lead pollution significantly increases the potential for neurological harm to children, including autism, according to a 2014 Harvard study.
He said that harm also can be caused by mercury, manganese and other heavy metals also emitted by the plant "in large doses."
Zerbo said the number of autism cases in Pennsylvania increased from 20,000 in 2009 to 55,000 in 2014.
"It is ridiculous to emit more lead pollution during this unprecedented increase," he said.
What the company wants
As DEP puts it, the company wants to increase its lead emission to .258 tons per year. One ton equals 2,000 pounds, which means the company wants to put more than 500 pounds of lead into the air each year.
Mike Ewall, founder and director of Philadelphia-based Energy Justice Network, said the electric company currently is allowed to emit 23.7 pounds of lead a year, "which is enough to do some damage, especially with so many schools and playgrounds within a mile."
But Ewall said data that company has reported to EPA shows the amount actually emitted actually ranged from 15 to 40 pounds a year between 2010 and 2013.
"Some of those were over the limit," said Ewall.
"They've not been able to follow the laws they currently have. That doesn't justify raising that to 515 pounds a year — a 22-time increase."
"We want DEP to deny this permit request," testified Tom Schuster of the Sierra Club. "Lead is one of the most dangerous pollutants out there. It would be irresponsible for this plant to be allowed such a huge increase in lead emissions."
Breaking the rules
In 2013, Northampton Generating Company was fined $119,354 for DEP for air emission violations between late 2009 and the first half of 2012.
DEP determined the company submitted invalid data on a daily basis from April 1 to June 20, 2012.
DEP also found the company had failed to meet emission limits for carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide five times between the last quarter of 2009 and the second quarter of 2012.
Before that fine was levied, the plant paid DEP a total of $1,900 in penalties for air quality violations that occurred between 2009 and 2013.
"They don't follow the rules, period," said Reimer of the plant operators. "They got fined $120,000 for breaking the limits. Do you think they're going to follow limits now?"
Rossner accused the plant's operators of "blatant disregard for the rules" and said it's "mind-boggling" that they now wants DEP to allow them to significantly increase the amount of lead their plant emits.
Sedor suggested it's illogical to allow more lead to be emitted into the atmosphere when lead has been removed from both gasoline and paint.
What the plant burns
According to DEP, the company burns tire-derived fuel, propane, anthracite culm, high carbon ash, coal, residual paper products, virgin wood and petroleum coke to generate and sell electricity.
Ewall of Energy Justice Network testified the plant burns waste coal, tires and pelletized trash from Philadelphia. "These are three of the filthiest fuels you can burn."
Indicating the plant had three permit "excursions" in March and June 2014, Zerbo of the Clean Air Council said if the plant can't control emissions from burning tires, it should not be allowed to burn them.
Zerbo maintained the company's only justification for raising the lead emission limit "is their own inability to monitor fuels and control emissions."
Based on EPA data, Ewall maintained Northampton Generating is the second worst polluter in the Lehigh Valley for arsenic, cadmium, chlorine, hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid emissions.
Ewall said the plant now is the Lehigh Valley's twelfth worst polluter for lead. But he predicted that, if the emission increase is permitted, the plant will become the number one source of lead pollution in this area.
Confirming that, Schuster of the Sierra Club said the power plant is the fourth largest lead emitter in Northampton County "and will become the largest if this permit revision is approved."
Schuster predicted such a large increase in lead emissions might put the whole Lehigh Valley area into violation of ambient air quality standards for lead. "That has not been addressed at all," he said.
What happens next
The hearing was moderated by Colleen Connolly, DEP's regional community relations coordinator.
Seated next to her at a table in the front of the room was Ray Kempa, permits section chief in DEP's air quality program, which is reviewing the permit modification application.
"We will not be answering any questions tonight," explained Connolly at the start of the hearing. "We are taking testimony only on the permit application."
She explained the process of reviewing the plant's permit modification request to increase lead emissions includes both the hearing and a public comment period.
Connolly told the audience written comments about the plant's request will be accepted until 4 p.m. July 15.
She said people can email comments directly to her at email@example.com or mail comments to DEP Northeast Regional Office, Two Public Square, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., 18701.
Connolly said a few public comments already had been received by email.
She explained DEP's air quality staff will respond to the hearing testimony, and answer some questions raised, when they prepare a comments response document.
"You will be able to have a copy of that," she told the audience.
She later explained preparing that document usually takes a month or two after the public comment period closes.
Connolly predicted a decision on Northampton Generating's request to increase lead emissions may not be made "until close to the end of the year."
After the meeting, she explained that even if DEP approves the increase, the electric plant still will be within federal EPA limits for lead emissions.
Ewall of Energy Justice Network said the hearing showed DEP that people care about the issue. He predicted DEP still will "rubber stamp" the electric company's request, but people who testified at least will make DEP think twice about doing so.
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