Proposed power plant in Elizabeth Township faces hurdles, questions

After a contentious town hall meeting last week, Elizabeth Township is weighing a Chicago-based energy company’s proposal to build a 550-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant on the toxic site of a former industrial landfill. 

Township officials have said the prospect of the plant is exciting from a tax revenue perspective but they are approaching the idea with an open mind. 

“We think this is going to be a substantial tax benefit,” Robert Rhoderick, president of the board of commissioners, said at the outset of the Jan. 28 meeting, held in a packed auditorium at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. “But we answer to you.”

Invenergy LLC, which originally reached out to the township commissioners in October, wants to build the plant on a 22-acre section of long-contaminated land off Henderson Road near Buena Vista, owned by local resident David Fiore. Mr. Fiore’s father, William, operated a dump during the late 1970s and 1980s that accepted coal sludge from U.S. Steel and demolition waste from several other companies. 

But the state Department of Environmental Protection shut down the site in 1983 after finding William Fiore was improperly handling the wastes at the site. Three years later, he was sentenced to six to 12 years in prison for illegally disposing of the wastes and discharging some into the river.

Nick Cohen, Invenergy director of thermal development, portrayed the plant as a good use of a “vast area of this township that is providing absolutely no benefit.” 

“For a power plant perspective, it’s a great place to be,” Mr. Cohen said. “We’re really about the only kind of business that could be operated on that site due to its historical uses.”

At the town hall, its history of pollution reopened some wounds in the community and seemed to cast a negative light on the project. “I think we’ve served our jail time,” shouted one resident from the audience.

“Mr. Fiore did not tell the truth to this township, that’s why it’s a brownfield,” said another audience member. “Everybody cuts and runs, the money goes to Philadelphia and New York ... and we get stuck with the bill.”

Though the site is zoned for residential purposes, Mr. Cohen said it would be difficult to develop anything there other than an industrial manufacturing facility. And he touted the positives the plant would bring, including 200 to 300 temporary jobs throughout the two-year construction period, 21 full-time positions at the plant and a total investment of more than $350 million. 

“With that investment comes opportunity for the community,” Mr. Cohen said. 

Mr. Cohen showed an aerial image of the proposed site and drew orange boundaries where people could expect to hear at least 60 decibels, which Mr. Cohen likened to the sound of a television on in the next room. He also showed photographs of views from the closest streets with an estimated height of the plant’s towers.

But residents — particularly those who live near the proposed site — aired their frustrations that they would see and hear the facility. Patricia Hoffman said the plant would be within sight of her home and disturb the tranquility of her neighborhood, which she’s measured to be currently about 20 decibels.

“I wake up in the morning, and you know where your smokestack is going to be?” she said. “Right in my sunrise!”

Mr. Cohen stressed that Invenergy would be highly regulated by noise ordinances and that the plant is designed to be “basically inaudible.” 

After the meeting, the company said it would hold another public meeting before filing for any permits. Mr. Cohen took questions from residents on notecards and randomly selected them to answer during the meeting. He said he would answer those he did not have time to answer out loud — he received about 75 total — by contacting the people who asked them.

Township Commissioner Andrew Kuzma, organizer of the town hall, said he is undecided on the project but that he was surprised by the size of the opposition to the plant. The township would have to approve Invenergy’s plans to proceed, including if Invenergy would withdraw from and discharge water into the Youghiogheny River. 
The company is still deciding where it would get the water to operate.

“That was really eye-opening that we had that many residents opposed,” Mr. Kuzma said. “It will definitely factor into my decision.”

Daniel Moore:, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

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