GenOn Power Plant Faces Millions in Fines Over Conemaugh Discharge

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
23 March 2011
By Don Hopey

A federal court judge has ruled that polluted water discharges by the Conemaugh coal-fired power plant in southern Indiana County have violated the Clean Water Act, exposing the operator, GenOn Northeast Management Co., to millions of dollars in potential penalties.

The summary judgment ruling Monday by U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell sets the stage for a June 1 trial to determine the penalty amount and the terms of a compliance order to stop the ongoing illegal discharges of wastewater.

The discharges dumped excessive concentrations of iron, aluminium, manganese, selenium and boron into the Conemaugh River.

The court said the discharges have violated the Clean Water Act on 8,684 days since 2005.

The court could assess penalties of up to $37,500 for each violation, for a total of $300 million, against GenOn NMC, the wholly-owned subsidiary of GenOn Energy Inc., a Houston, Texas company formed in December 2010 by the merger of RRI Energy and Mirant Corp. The 1,711-megawatt power plant in New Florence is owned by a consortium of eight power companies, including GenOn.

"GenOn's long history of failure to comply with its pollution limits suggests that the quality of Pennsylvania's rivers is worth less to the company than the profits it can take back to Houston," said Thomas Au, water issues chair for the Pennsylvania Sierra Club, which joined PennEnvironment in initiating the federal lawsuit.

The river has been designated an "impaired" waterway by the state due to high concentrations of heavy metals, which can damage aquatic life and fisheries and inhibit recreation.

Mark Baird, a GenOn spokesman, declined to comment on the court ruling or respond to questions about the power plant's Conemaugh River discharges, due to the pending litigation.

The PennFuture and Sierra lawsuit, filed in April 2007, alleges that GenOn has been and continues to discharge illegal and potentially toxic levels of heavy metals in the 3 million gallons of water it sends into the river each day.

Some of the metals in the water discharge -- specifically selenium and boron -- come from air pollution "scrubber" control equipment installed by the power plant in the mid-1990s.

The environmental groups filed the lawsuit because the state Department of Environmental Protection had agreed in a 2004 "side deal" to delay for seven years the enforcement of discharge limits it set in 2001, said Josh Kratka, an attorney with the Boston-based nonprofit national Environmental Law Center, which represented the groups. The DEP has since extended the agreement to 2012.

Mr. Kratka said the case against GenOn is significant because of the large number and "uninterrupted history" of violations, and the many years of economic benefits the company has realized by delaying compliance with its discharge permit.

"One goal of the Clean Water Act is to make sure that violators don't profit from polluting," he said, noting that the company will need to install three multi-million dollar water treatment plants to handle its wastes and has only recently completed one.

David Masur, PennEnvironment director, said GenOn had the technical ability to comply with federal water pollution regulations.

"It is crucial," Mr. Masur said, "that penalties for this type of flagrant environmental malfeasance are more than just a slap on the wrist."

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.