PGE seeks permit to increase pollution at Carty plant

Contributed photo by Michael Durham. Construction of the Carty Generating Station as seen in August 2015.

Portland General Electric’s natural gas-fired power plant in Boardman would be allowed to emit more than three times as much carbon monoxide and eight times as much smog-causing pollution if a new permit is approved.

Dan Serres, conservation director with the environmental organization Columbia Riverkeeper, called the higher amounts “eyebrow-raising.” Steve Corson, spokesman for Portland General Electric, said the new permit would allow for the upper limit of pollution at the plant, which still would be within federal standards for air quality.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is holding a public hearing on the proposal Thursday at 6 p.m. in Boardman at the Port of Morrow’s Well Springs Room.

Portland General Electric can emit 99 tons of carbon monoxide a year at the Carty plant under the DEQ’s current air quality permit. The new permit would increase that to 324 tons a year.

Volatile organic compounds would see a larger jump, from 24 tons a year to 194 tons a year. VOCs are organic compounds that combine with other elements in the atmosphere to cause ozone or smog.

“The way PGE initially got this permitted was with the expectation of a lower pollution profile than what they’re asking for,” Serres said. “This was really eyebrow-raising for us to see this huge proposal coming from the gas-fired plant.”

Serres also said the permitting process for big power plants requires accurate information, and PGE did not provide that to either the DEQ or the Oregon Facility Citing Council when it sought the permit.

That was back in 2009, but the Carty Plant was not operational until July 2016. Corson said the manufacturer of Carty’s turbine, Mitsubishi, found that starting and stopping the machine emitted more pollution than initially projected.

“We used the best data available [in 2009],” Corson said. “Now we have new data.”

That data shows the upper limit of Carty’s emissions, and the permit should reflect those possibilities, Corson said.

“We appreciate in absolute terms these look like large numbers,” he said. “But in terms of plant operations and actual emissions they will still be within appropriate health and safety standards.”

Doug Welch with the DEQ in Pendleton concurred. He is the senior environmental engineer writing the new permit.

“We consider this a kind of course correction,” he said.

Even with the higher limits on the proposal, the levels are within standards for human health and safety. The DEQ ran computer models to figure out the effects on air quality and make sure they would not violate regulations under the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“We wouldn’t issue the permit if there was a health problem,” Welch said.

The hearing Thursday night in Boardman could bring a contingent of PGE customers from Portland. Serres said that depends if the latest winter storm turns Interstate 84 into an underivable ice rink. Attending or not, he said, Columbia Riverkeeper is going to push DEQ on the Carty Plant pollution.

“We’re going to be asking DEQ to take a much harder look at way to control the pollution from this plant,” he said, which could mean limiting the start-ups and shut-downs or perhaps other technologies.”

Corson, who said he also plans on attending the hearing, said Carty already has the “best available control technology” to abate emissions of carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds. He also added the permit limits are just that — the limits — and not what PGE expects Carty to emit on a regular basis.

For 2017, he said, the plant operating consistently with few start ups and shut downs and emitted 17.6 tons of volatile organic compounds and 31.1 tons of carbon monoxide. Both are below the limits of the permit the plant operates under now, but Corson said the possibility exists for higher emissions, so the permit should account for that possibility.

“Emissions vary significantly, even from month to month, based on plant operations,” he said. “So the permits reflect the higher limits of what’s possible while still staying within the appropriate standards for health and safety.”

Following the hearing, the DEQ will continue taking public input in writing. Welch said Columbia Riverkeeper and other groups submitted a letter asking to extend the public comment period 60 more days, and the state agency is likely to grant that extension, although there has yet to be an official response.

Welch said the DEQ reviews the comments and considers if they raise new points or shine a light on new information that would lead to modifying the permit. Once the state regulators finish their work, Welch said the EPA makes sure the permit squares with its requirements.

Serres said Riverkeeper sees no justification for the pollution increases aside from what PGE claims, and the new data show fracking plants can be very polluting.

“There needs to be a more robust analysis of what this would do to the Gorge and the people who live nearby,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense for a new facility to see this enormous lurch in pollution.”

Corson said Carty is a key resource in PGE’s effort to distribute renewable energy. The plant is highly efficient and uses the best technology to control pollution, he said, and the change in the permit would allow the company to operate Carty as intended.

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Contact Phil Wright at pwright@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0833.

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