GenOn’s coal-fired 400-MW Portland Generating Station in Pennsylvania’s Northampton County must significantly cut its sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions with three years because they are adversely impacting air quality in Warren, Sussex, Morris, and Hunterdon counties in New Jersey, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled on Monday as it granted its first-ever single source petition.

The petition was submitted by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in September 2010. It claimed more than 30,000 tons of SO2 emissions, as well as mercury and other contaminants, were being carried by wind and weather across the Delaware River and directly onto residents living in communities in Warren County. The emissions were negatively impacting air quality in Morris, Sussex and Hunterdon counties, the state claimed.

New Jersey’s petition was filed under Section 126 of the Clean Air Act. The law allows states to petition the EPA to request a facility be required to reduce its impact if it can prove the facility is affecting air quality in that state. The EPA proposed to grant the petition this March.

The EPA said air quality modeling analyses to evaluate SO2 levels in New Jersey had shown they had exceeded the agency’s 1-hour national air quality standard—and that the Portland plant is the main source of emissions. Monitoring data showing SO2 concentrations in Warren County exceeding the level of the 1-hour SO2 standard support the agency’s modeling results.

By accepting the DEP’s petition, the EPA will require the plant to reduce SO2 emissions by 60% within one year and by 81% within three years. But the rule will give the Portland plant the flexibility to chose “the most cost-effective strategy for meeting these limits, including installing proven and widely available pollution control technologies,” the EPA said. The agency noted that the plant’s two units were “large sources of SO2 emissions in the region,” they are about 50 years old, and they are among 44% of coal-fired units in the U.S. that have no advanced pollution controls such as scrubbers and catalysts.

The actions the plant would have to take to meet the EPA’s limits are similar to those identified the finalized Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the upcoming Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

"As someone who lived and worked in New Jersey, I know that communities have struggled for years with pollution crossing state lines, fouling the air they breathe and threatening their health. The Cross State rule EPA finalized this year and today’s action are two important steps designed to protect communities facing these exact challenges," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "In granting today’s petition, we’re taking a common-sense approach that gives the facility flexibility to find the most cost-effective methods for cutting pollution and for helping communities in New Jersey meet the Clean Air Act standards for sulfur dioxide."

New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie hailed the EPA’s decision, saying it was a “major step towards significantly reducing huge volumes of harmful air pollutants from a coal-fired Pennsylvania power plant.”

Christie’s office said that the DEP’s air monitoring station in Knowlton Township, which sits a mile from the Portland power plant, had measured the highest short-term sulfur dioxide levels in New Jersey, due to pollution emanating from the Portland generating station.

“The sulfur dioxide coming from the plant is known to cause a variety of adverse health effects, including asthma and respiratory failure, and environmental impacts such as acid rain. The air pollution from this plant, however, is not limited to sulfur dioxide,” the DEP said. “The plant also emits a high levels of nitrogen oxides, mercury, hydrochloric acid, lead and other air pollutants, including fine sulfate particles that travel on the wind throughout northern New Jersey, and to New York, Connecticut and beyond.”

Earlier this year, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin told the EPA at a hearing that it was unacceptable to have “a single power plant on New Jersey’s border emitting more sulfur dioxide and mercury than all of New Jersey’s coal-, oil- and gas-fired power plants combined.”

Sources: POWERnews, EPA, DEP, Gov. Chris Christie