The skies may be clearing as coal retreats. A Houston-based power company recently announced plans to close large coal-fired power plants on Chesapeake Bay tributaries, the Patuxent and Potomac rivers in Maryland.
David Gaier, spokesman for Houston-based NRG Energy Inc., said today (Dec. 17) that the company has notified power grid operators that NRG will deactivate in May 2017 the coal-burning generators at the Chalk Point power plant in Prince George’s County (shown above), and the Dickerson plant in Montgomery County. The Chalk Point plant (formerly owned by Mirant) has a notorious history that includes numerous air pollution violations and an oil spill into the Patuxent River.
“The reason is pretty simple. Maryland recently announced it would implement more stringent environmental regulations for coal fired power plants, for emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide” air pollutants, Gaier said. “For those coal-fired units to comply with those new standards would require us to invest in significant capital expenses” for air pollution control equipment. “We can’t justify the investments.”
In June, the Maryland Department of the Environment filed a federal lawsuit against NRG, alleging that the Chalk Point and Dickerson plants discharged more nitrogen pollution into the Potomac and Patuxent rivers than permitted. Gaier said the plans to shut down the plants had nothing to do with the federal lawsuit.
The power company, like many across the country, is finding that burning coal to generate electricity is less economical than burning natural gas, which is cheaper (and creates less soot and mercury pollution).
“All coal plants are under financial pressure at a time when natural gas prices are at historic lows,” said Gaier, whose company also has offices in New Jersey.
Gaier added that the Chalk Point and Dickerson plants would not completely close, because they would continue to operate their oil and gas-fired generating units.
Assuming the company follows through with the plans, the shutdowns of the coal-burning units would be good news for the health of the Chesapeake Bay region.
Air pollution -– including from coal-fired power plants –- is responsible for roughly a third of the nitrogen pollution that causes low-oxygen “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay. Coal-fired power plants also release mercury, which contaminates fish and threatens human health, as well as particulate pollution that can trigger heart and asthma attacks. And coal plants are a major contributor to the greenhouse gas pollution that is causing climate change.
A recent paper by Keith Eshleman and colleagues at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science found that water quality in Potomac River tributaries improved between 1985 and 2010 because improvements to upwind coal-fired power plants cut the amount of nitrogen pollution in the air and in the water.
Across the country, power companies are choosing to burn more natural gas, and less coal, because gas is cheaper and because of tougher air pollution regulations.
The shift away from coal means cleaner skies and waters for all of us.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo at top of Chalk Point from University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)