Divisions drawn as Elizabeth Township faces legal challenge over gas plant

A Chicago-based energy developer is not giving up on its pursuit to build a natural gas-fired power plant in Elizabeth Township, using evidence that hundreds of local residents support the plan as a way to bolster its case.

Invenergy LLC is building a legal challenge against the Elizabeth Township zoning hearing board, which in June halted the company’s plans to begin developing a site along the Youghiogheny River that is zoned for residential uses. The zoning hearing board decided that, despite the site’s long history of pollution, the property should remain residential.

Filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas shortly after the ruling, the appeal puts before a judge what Invenergy had argued before the zoning board: that a residential developer could never feasibly take on the 600-acre brownfield site, most of which was contaminated in the 1980s by an illegal misplacement of coal sludge and industrial waste.

The suit puts the cost of cleaning the property at around $735 million, which is “clearly an absolute bar to residential development,” it reads. Invenergy’s 550-megawatt plant is proposed for a 22-acre chunk within the larger property.

But ever since the company first brought its plans to the Elizabeth Township commissioners last fall, the proposal has stirred controversy among those who don’t want to see the site disturbed by an industrial facility. Though tucked away on an uninhabited property and surrounded on three sides by a curve of the river, the plant would be visible from nearby streets.

From February to April, the board held three public hearings in the auditorium of the Elizabeth Forward Middle School. Hundreds of people turned out in near-unanimous opposition, some of it coordinated by Protect Elizabeth Township, a grassroots group that organized to fight the plant.

Critics have pointed out that developers successfully completed Summerset at Frick Park, a 700-home development in Squirrel Hill constructed on a coal slag dump and required remediation.

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“Invenergy has not provided sufficient evidence that the characteristics on the site are really unique or create the hardship they’re claiming,” Megan McDonough, president of Protect Elizabeth Township, told zoning officials in April.

Protect Elizabeth Township and the Mountain Watershed Association have both intervened in the court case.

The company has countered with its own group, called the Elizabeth Citizens for Progress, which has a Facebook page and Twitter feed featuring the occasional #SupporterSpotlight feature. At the June vote, supporters showed up wearing blue-and-yellow shirts with a logo consisting of a check-marked “YES” in favor of the plant.

Invenergy included in the court docket the names and addresses — and some written comments — from 459 residents it identified as supporting the prospect of a power plant in the area.

“Hopefully, it can bring jobs into the area,” writes one person who identifies himself as a union iron worker. “Seems to be OK as long as hazardous material is not disturbed,” writes another.

The company said it met supporters through social media, phone surveys, door-to-door canvassing, approaching people at polls on Election Day and a number of informal events.

“Supporters of the project just as often proactively self-identified as were identified by us,” said Harrison Godfrey, a manager of state government affairs for Invenergy. “As the legal process goes forward, we continue to see an organic growth in our support.”

The case will come down to whether residential developers would face “unnecessary and unusual hardships” to build on the land, in which case there could be legal basis to grant the variances. If they are granted, the variances alone would not allow the plant itself. But the move would represent the first major step toward beginning site development.

“This will undoubtedly be a marathon, not a sprint,” Ms. McDonough said last week. “Protect Elizabeth Township will be there every step of the way.”

Invenergy has said the plant would cost more than $350 million to construct over up to two years, creating 300 temporary jobs and 21 permanent operating jobs.

Invenergy has developed wind, solar and natural gas plants capable of generating more than 10,000 megawatts of utility-scale power, according to its website. It has primarily focused on renewable energy: Of its 79 power plant projects, 65 are wind farms and seven are solar plants, while seven burn natural gas.

Invenergy is pushing ahead on a 1,500-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant in Lackawanna County, which is the largest gas-fired plant in the state. It is planned to be operational by 2018.

The power plant is the second project for this region after Nebraska-based energy company Tenaska broke ground this year on a 925-megawatt natural gas plant in Westmoreland County’s South Huntingdon.

By an order issued last month, parties that have intervened in the case have until Nov. 21 to submit briefs and supporting documents.

Daniel Moore: dmoore@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

Correction, posted Oct. 11, 2016: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described characteristics of the proposed plant site. 

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