Proposed gas plant in Elizabeth Township leads to zoning debate

The energy company that wants to build a natural gas-fired power plant in Elizabeth Township has called the proposed site a “vast area ... that is providing absolutely no benefit.”

While that assertion may be difficult to challenge — the plant would rest on a property contaminated by the illegal disposal of coal ash and demolition waste in the 1980s — an organized group of local residents says building a 550-megawatt power plant is not the answer.

The debate has spilled into a municipal zoning proceeding over Chicago-based Invenergy’s request to allow the plant to go up in a chunk of the township zoned “suburban residential.” The second hearing on the matter is scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight at the Elizabeth Forward Middle School.

Invenergy, a developer of wind, solar and natural gas power plants, has argued that an industrial facility can be built on much of a 600-acre brownfield property along the Youghiogheny River near Buena Vista. The property is owned by local resident David Fiore. Mr. Fiore’s father, William, operated an industrial landfill during the late 1970s and 1980s that accepted fly ash from U.S. Steel’s Clairton Works and demolition waste from several other companies.

Though the landfill was permitted by state environmental regulators, William Fiore was found to have exceeded the terms of his permit. In 1986, he was sentenced to six to 12 years in prison for illegally disposing of waste and discharging some into the river. William Fiore has passed away; his son directed questions about the land to Invenergy.

The company is eyeing a 22-acre “doughnut hole” surrounded by fly ash contamination, said Michael S. Blazer, an environmental lawyer representing Invenergy.

“You routinely look at an area that, because of whatever the challenges may be for the property, can’t really be used for something else,” Mr. Blazer said. “It’s a great beneficial reuse of a brownfield.”

Mr. Blazer emphasized the company is not asking to change the zoning designation of the property; rather, it is asking for a variance, which allows development outside the terms of a zoning designation in polluted areas where it is impossible or prohibitively expensive for permitted developers to clean up.

In his request to the zoning board, Mr. Blazer cited a 1997 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that supported variances granted by the Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment to allow construction of a parking lot in an area zoned “residential” that was contaminated by petroleum hydrocarbon and benzene.

The justices found because the property was “practically valueless as zoned” and costs of cleanup would have been $2.5 million to $3 million, the zoning board could legally grant the variances.

But when Invenergy brought the idea of a gas power plant to a community forum in January, it brought out resistance from area residents.

Protect Elizabeth Township, a citizens group opposed to the plant, was formed by some of the residents who live in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood, a collection of large homes perched on a steep hillside overlooking the Youghiogheny River.

The group believes the plant will cause more pollution and disturb the peace. It also believes residential development under the current zoning is possible.

“I’d be fine with residences,” said Fred Bickerton, a Mt. Vernon resident and retired director of waste management for Duquesne Light Co.

Mr. Bickerton said he was involved in shutting down and cleaning up parts of the Fiore landfill for the utility. He pointed to the success of the Summerset at Frick Park, a housing development in Squirrel Hill built on a coal slag heap.

The group is trying to raise awareness without being too confrontational, said Patty Hoffman, a Mt. Vernon resident. So far, they have bought space on a billboard near the bridge entering Versailles. “Help Stop Proposed Invenergy Power Plant,” it reads, advertising the zoning board hearing.

In a tour of the proposed location Wednesday, Nick Cohen, director of thermal development for Invenergy, said the plant is being suggested for one of the most isolated sites he’s seen. “We try to go to a place that’s invisible and inaudible,” he said.

At Mr. Fiore’s property, he pointed to patches of contamination, fenced-off areas deemed indefinitely unsafe by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. A towering power transmission line cuts through the property.

Mr. Cohen urged residents who have concerns to reach out to him at public meetings.

“I wish I could take people here and show them,” he said. “I think their fears would be allayed if they really saw where this is.”

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

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