Renewable energy advocates said the 440,000 pounds of pollutants that the Huntley electric plant generated in the Town of Tonawanda in 2013 proves it doesn’t take much coal to damage the Earth.
The plant’s operator said the 98-year-old facility has never run cleaner.
Both arguments might be true, but it didn’t stop Huntley from recapturing its longtime perch atop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s annual list as Erie County’s biggest polluter.
The data, according to EPA’s newly published Toxics Release Inventory, shows most of the contaminants from Huntley were collected and transferred off site, but about 56,000 pounds were released into the air, water or land.
The federal inventory data shows Huntley released 34,641 pounds of hydrogen fluoride into the environment from its River Road site, along with 20,514 pounds of hydrochloric acid, 884 pounds of barium compounds as well as 83 and 17 pounds of lead and mercury compounds, respectively.
That’s unacceptable, said Brian P. Smith, associate executive director for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
“This tells us what we already know,” Smith said. “On any scale, fossil fuels pose an unacceptable risk to public health and our environment.”
However, company officials credit more than $150 million in improvements with dramatically reducing pollution levels at the plant.
“Huntley is actually one of the cleanest coal-fueled power plants in the nation,” said David Gaier, regional communications director for NRG Energy Inc., which operates the plant.
Huntley’s 2013 figure spiked more than 53 percent from just a year earlier, but fell more in line with where the plant fared for toxic releases over the preceding six years.
The coal-fired plant led the list of Erie County’s biggest polluters every year between 2002 and 2011 and again in 2013, according to EPA data. The 3M Company’s sponge manufacturing plant on Sawyer Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda eclipsed Huntley in 2012.
That year, believed to be driven by market and policy factors, Huntley operated at a reported 19 percent capacity. “When you’re operating on a very limited capacity, it’s likely you’re going to produce less pollution,” Smith said.
The plant is undergoing a repermitting process through the state Department of Environmental Conservation following a lawsuit by the Sierra Club. The DEC recommended Huntley be allowed to operate at no more than 15 percent capacity under the new permit. The DEC is accepting comments on that issue through Friday.
Gaier wouldn’t discuss the degree that reduced operations at Huntley have played a role in the lower pollution levels, but alluded to several large investments over the last decade that have reduced the amount of pollution released into the environment.
That included about $35 million in 2005 to convert the plant to use low-sulfur coal to produce fewer emissions, he said.
In 2009, a $115 million investment in “back-end environmental controls” helped its record, Gaier pointed out, aiming at “providing affordable, reliable and environmentally responsible energy.”
The 2013 figures are dwarfed by the nearly 5 million pounds of contaminants Huntley released between 2002 and 2004. That included large amounts of sulfuric acid and other hazardous chemicals
“Our environmental program has reduced emissions of mercury by 75 percent, sulfur dioxide by 77 percent and nitrogen oxides by 71 percent,” Gaier said.
Environmental groups contend that, even with those improvements, the fact that Huntley still tops the heap of polluters is telling.
“A little bit of coal goes a long way toward polluting our environment,” Smith said. “While the fact that a coal plant is the biggest polluter year after year is no surprise, that doesn’t mean we should be complacent with this fact.
“The Toxics Release Inventory provides critical data that must compel our community to take action … to transition away from dirty fossil fuels, while moving aggressively toward energy efficiency and renewable energy.”
Rebecca Newberry of the Tonawanda-based Clean Air Coalition added: “We have been fighting for years to reduce air pollution in the Town of Tonawanda and surrounding neighborhoods.”
Newberry said the data “further demonstrates why we need to be building a new economy that provides good-paying jobs and doesn’t pollute our neighborhoods.
“This plant is not doing well financially and this is why we continue to fight for a transition plan that protects workers and funding for the town and school district,” Newberry said.
The 3M company continued to lead among total pollutant releases on its own site. There, 371,000 pounds of carbon disulfide were released at its 19-acre site where it makes O-Cel-O and Scotch-Brite sponges, the report showed. The chemical, which is used in manufacturing, has been linked mainly to workplace-related hazards.
Third on Erie County’s list of overall polluters was the Dupont Yerkes plant on River Road in Town of Tonawanda, which released about 238,000 pounds of toxic byproducts, including the chemicals methyl methacrylate and vinyl fluoride on its site and about 2,200 pounds of zinc compounds that were transferred off site, the EPA reported. The plant manufactures Corian and Tedlar countertops.