Debating proposed Washington County power plant and disagreeing on the key issues



Where well pads and compressor stations are now as common a sight as cows and pigs, a new industrial feature is slated for Robinson Township in Washington County. 

The Beech Hollow Project, a proposed natural gas-fired power plant, drew a crowd of about 100 people to the Fort Cherry High School on Wednesday for a state Department of Environmental Protection public hearing on its air permit.

The Robinson Power Co. has been trying since 2005 to build a power plant on the proposed 37-acre site. Two attempts to build a waste coal power plant using leftover coal from an earlier plant failed to pass muster and Robinson Power tacked toward natural gas. Now Beech Hollow, if approved, will run on natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation.

“We're all landowners and we all have leases. Probably just about everybody in this room,” George Yonker, of Mt. Pleasant Township, said. He sat with several other community members, all of whom wore pale yellow shirts that read, “Land Owners United.”

“We’re sitting on the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” his wife Kathy Yonker said. “As long as the power plant does what it's supposed to do and follows the rules ... We need electricity and we have natural gas right here in this region that can be used to fire this power plant.”

Washington County has seen economic growth from the developing natural gas industry. Before getting a well pad on their property, the Yonkers had to sell off eight different parcels of land to make money. With drilling royalties, they have since stopped. They expect to use the money to preserve their remaining land for their children.

“It has supported this area clear down to flaggers. Your engineers and your geologist down to tires — trucks that use tires. It's endless,” Ms. Yonker said.

As for air safety concerns? "Miniscule,” Ms. Yonker said. “As long as it's monitored responsibly."

The DEP modeling showed the plant wouldn’t violate health-based air quality standards, said Marc Gorog, the DEP’s air quality program manager for the southwest region of Pennsylvania.

Still, not all community interests align on the question of air quality. Some are concerned that the power plant will be built just over four miles from the Fort Cherry School District, which serves more than 1,000 children.

Spokesman Justin Wasser of the Clean Air Council read a prepared statement calling for more rigorous calculations, more stringent modeling for particulate matter, and a more thorough discussion of air quality risks. No one clapped after he finished speaking.

“The DEP seems to be issuing each of these permits in a vacuum,” said Lisa Graves Marcucci, an outreach coordinator with the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group. “They're not looking at the cumulative impacts to a small area. We're going to get to the point where someone pans out and sees the bird’s-eye view and it's like, ‘Oh my gosh, where did that come from?’"

Cathy Lodge, who also works with Environmental Integrity Project and lives in Robinson Township, has opposed the Beech Hollow project for years.

“Over the past 10 years, I’ve started seeing the silos becoming condensate tanks and the barns becoming compressor stations. Pipeline replaced fence lines,” she said with a sigh. “I just started seeing this change to the farmland go from agriculture to industry.”

Public comment on the air permit can be made in writing or via email to abinder@pa.gov until July 22. 

Amelia Nierenberg: anierenberg@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1370 or @ajnierenberg.

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