Pennsylvania’s largest operating natural-gas fired electric generating plant, Lackawanna Energy Center (LEC) near Scranton (in Jessup), will soon receive a permit officially allowing and capping sulfur dioxide emissions from the plant. Should nearby residents be concerned?
The short answer is “NO.” They should not be concerned. But just mentioning that the plant is “polluting” the air with SO2 (sulfur dioxide) is enough to alarm some people. The Scranton Times-Tribune newspaper, which is typically anti-drilling and anti-shale, does a passable job in the following article of presenting “both sides” of the SO2 issue. The reporter quotes one expert, from Syracuse University, who tries to put potential SO2 output from LEC into context. We think we have a better way of contextualizing it, which we share below.
First, read the article:
The Lackawanna Energy Center is on track to receive a permit capping its emissions of a major acid rain component.
The state Department of Environmental Protection recently announced that it intends to issue an acid rain permit to Invenergy LLC’s natural gas power plant in Jessup.
The document, part of the plant’s operating permit, regulates emissions of sulfur dioxide, DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly said. Sulfur dioxide is one of the primary components of acid rain.
The permit ensures that the plant remains below the Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold that caps emissions at 39.9 tons of sulfur dioxide in any 12 consecutive months, she said. However, “it is likely that this facility may emit less than this maximum amount,” Connolly said.
Invenergy spokeswoman Beth Conley said the Lackawanna Energy Center does not expect to exceed the limit.
Although he could not comment on the Lackawanna Energy Center specifically, Syracuse University professor Charles Driscoll explained that natural gas plants generally have “a lot lower” sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury emissions compared with coal-powered plants. Driscoll’s areas of expertise include acid rain, air pollution, climate change and health impacts of climate change.
Compared to “big, old, inefficient coal plants” that can release thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide annually, the energy center’s maximum of 39.9 tons is a drop in the bucket, he said.
“It would be less than — way less than — 1 percent of the total amount of emissions,” Driscoll said.
According to the EPA, about 2.7 million tons of sulfur dioxide was released in the United States in 2017. In 1970, 31.2 million tons of sulfur dioxide was released in the country, according to the EPA.
“If there’s a new facility coming on, it is going to contribute to the problem, but the problem is much reduced compared to what it was in the ’70s and ’80s,” Driscoll said.
Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ammonia all contribute to acid rain, Driscoll said.
When sulfur dioxide reaches the atmosphere, it becomes sulfate, which helps create sulfuric acid, he said.
In addition to its role in acid rain, sulfate is a fine particulate that can have health implications for people, such as asthmatics, who are sensitive to air pollution, he said. The particulates can exacerbate chronic conditions, as well as causing cardiovascular disease, Driscoll said.
Environmentally, acid rain can strip important nutrients from soil, and it can cause soil to release aluminum, he said. Aluminum is naturally occurring in soil, but when it becomes acidified, it can be toxic to plants, he said.
If soil can’t neutralize acid rain, the acidity makes its way into surface water, creating toxic conditions for fish, Driscoll said.
“It takes a long time for these systems to recover,” he said, explaining it takes soil centuries to fully recover and “a long time” for biology to return to contaminated water. “Even though acid rain has been greatly reduced, we’re still seeing legacy impacts from it.”
The Creamton Flyfishing Club keeps a watchful eye on its portion of the Lackawaxen River near the Prompton State Park, club President David Ersek said. Creamton is about 16 miles northeast of the energy center.
“We’re sensitive to the fact that things could change pretty rapidly,” he said.
The club does water testing and bug surveys, and some of its insect populations are zero tolerance, which means they would immediately be affected by pollution, Ersek said. The fly populations are large, which means the river is healthy, he said.
“If there’s a spike, we would notice it,” he said.
The river has rainbow, brook and brown trout, and club fishermen log the fish they catch, Ersek said. If there’s a decline in fish being caught, they would try to determine why and take corrective action, he said.
Driscoll thought it was unlikely residents would see any drastic changes, such as plants dying off, as a result of the sulfur dioxide emissions.
Although the EPA has thresholds for sulfur dioxide, the further emissions are below the threshold, the better, he said.
“There will be benefits as we continue to improve air quality through reduced emissions from power plants,” Driscoll said.*
Yes, LEC will emit some SO2. The question is, is it enough to harm nearby humans, animals and the environment?
What the author of the article (and expert quoted) don’t provide are the following facts, taken from an article appearing on the Sciencing website:
- Yes, burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) is a major source of SO2 emissions.
- Coal-fired power plants represent about 50% of all SO2 emissions.
- Oil-fired power plants (which are used in New England when natgas supplies run low in the winter) represent another 25-30% of all SO2 emissions.
- Other smaller sources of SO2 emissions come from industrial processes, like extracting metal from ore.
- SO2 emissions also come from burning fuels with a high sulfur content, things like locomotives, large ships and off-road equipment.
- Natural gas-fired plants, including LEC, represent a small fraction of all SO2 emissions.
*Scranton (PA) Times-Tribune (Feb 9, 2019) – Lackawanna Energy Center to receive acid rain permit capping emissions
Read the following article for more information on sources of SO2 emissions:
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