ANNAPOLIS – The state is giving a strong “n-o” to polluters who dump N – nitrogen – into waterways. On Aug. 29, Attorney General Brian Frosh announced the state has entered into a consent decree with NRG Chalk Point Llc. over excessive amounts of nitrogen discharged at the company’s power plants in Prince George’s and […]
ANNAPOLIS – The state is giving a strong “n-o” to polluters who dump N – nitrogen – into waterways.
On Aug. 29, Attorney General Brian Frosh announced the state has entered into a consent decree with NRG Chalk Point Llc. over excessive amounts of nitrogen discharged at the company’s power plants in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
NRG agreed to pay fines and perform environmental improvement projects and upgrades to its wastewater treatment plants at Dickerson Plant, along the Potomac River in Montgomery County, and the Chalk Point Electric Generating Station, located at the southeastern tip of Prince George’s County near East Harbor and Aquasco, alongside the Patuxent River.
“The Office of the Attorney General is determined to protect our citizens and our waterways from pollution,” Frosh said in a statement. “This consent decree will improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay and should serve as a reminder that we all play a role in protecting our environment, including our corporate citizens.”
Chalk Point burns both coal and natural gas to create power. The state had issued permits to the plant setting maximum annual loads of nitrogen and phosphorous that could be discharged into the river. Chalk Point allegedly exceeded those maximums and has agreed to pay a $1 million penalty to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), as well as $75,000 in attorney’s fees, to make up for those past exceedances. Going forward, NRG will pay specified penalties if they continue to exceed the nitrogen limits.
NRG must also complete $1 million in environmental projects to be reviewed and approved by MDE, and if MDE and NRG cannot agree on the projects the company will pay another monetary sum to MDE. NRG will also be required to upgrade its wastewater treatment plants to eliminate more nitrogen from what it discharges. The upgrades and monitoring systems must be in place by Oct. 1 and are projected to cost $10 million total, according to NRG and MDE.
David Gaier, spokesman for NRG East Region, said the company was moving forward with complying with the terms of the consent decree.
“We’re pleased to have resolved this suit without further litigation that would be costly and unproductive for both sides. Moving forward, we’ll be focused on installing and operating the additional nitrogen control systems, and on designing and implementing the Supplemental Environmental Projects that are both key parts of the settlement,” he said.
Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles hailed the consent decree as a win for the environment.
“Power plants have a responsibility to keep Maryland’s rivers, skies and lands clean for all,” he said. “This strong enforcement action includes a stiff penalty, improved technology at the plants to prevent nitrogen pollution, and significant investments in projects to protect the health of our priceless Potomac and Patuxent rivers.”
However, others in the environmental community do not think the action goes far enough. Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, said Chalk Point has faced numerous consent decrees throughout its history.
“I think these guys are chronically non-compliant, since I’ve been the riverkeeper. I guarantee you we’ll be back in court fighting these guys again over something else,” he said. “I think it’s a slap on the wrist. $2 million is not a significant fine or penalty to deter future wrongdoing. They’re getting off easy.”
Tutman also said signing the consent decree does not mean NRG admitted to any wrongdoing, legally, and so protects it from civil action by community members over the pollution.
Patuxent Riverkeeper, Potomac Riverkeeper and Food & Water Watch jointly filed the suit against NRG over the nitrogen pollution, and although the attorney general’s office took over the case, Tutman said his organization was involved in all the negotiations over the settlement.
Gaier noted that in spite of their criticism, Patuxent Riverkeeper and the others agreed on the terms of the settlement.
While Tutman said he thinks the problems with NRG will continue, he said the decree should “make a difference in the short run in terms of nitrogen.”
Excess nitrogen in rivers can lead to algae blooms that block sunlight to other aquatic plants and use up the oxygen in the water, leading to fish kills and other harm to the river’s ecosystem.
“Nitrogen is what’s feeding the decline of the rivers, both the Patuxent and the Potomac, and the Chesapeake Bay. This is exactly the stuff that is killing the river,” Tutman said.
Other sources of nitrogen in waterways include runoff from farms and vehicle emissions, and many environmentalist say those sources contribute to pollution more than discharges from power plants.
Gaier said the primary source of nitrogen from the plants came from the scrubber systems installed to help reduce air pollution.
“They allowed the plants to fully comply with the Maryland Healthy Air Act, and dramatically reduce the plants’ environmental footprint to this day,” he said.