Power firm held liable for 8,684 violations

| Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The operator of an Indiana County coal-fired power plant is liable for more than 8,600 violations of the Clean Water Act that polluted the Conemaugh River with metal discharges, a federal judge ruled, which would lead to a maximum civil penalty of more than $300 million.

Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell in Pittsburgh has yet to determine how much GenOn Northeast Management Co., a unit of GenOn Energy Inc. of Houston, should pay in damages.

But one of the environmentalists who sued the company said the likely outcome is that GenOn will attempt to settle the lawsuit before the judge imposes a penalty.

PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur estimated Tuesday that the maximum civil penalty would exceed $300 million.

In a 23-page order, Mitchell said GenOn is liable for violating the Clean Water Act at its Conemaugh Generating Station in West Wheatfield on 8,684 occasions since 2005. The court could assess a maximum fine of $37,500 for each violation.

GenOn spokesman Mark Baird said the company does not comment on pending lawsuits.

GenOn Energy was formed last year in a $1.6 billion merger of energy providers Mirant Corp. and RRI Energy Inc., creating one of the nation's largest independent power producers.

PennEnvironment and the Sierra Club contended that GenOn's own monitoring report indicated the company exceeded its permitted daily maximum discharge levels of aluminum, manganese, iron, selenium and boron on numerous occasions.

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

Josh Kratka, senior attorney for the National Environmental Law Center, which helped filed the suit, said two specific issues remain to be settled at a trial scheduled to start June 1 before Mitchell: How big will the civil penalty be, and what kind of court order must the judge issue to ensure that GenOn complies with federal anti-pollution laws?

In his order, Mitchell said that if the company were to comply with the permit program regulating the discharge wastewater, there would be less pollution in the Conemaugh River.

"The court has also found that the imposition of civil penalties is not only likely to deter GenOn from exceeding its permit levels in the future, but will serve to deter others as well," the judge wrote.

PennEnvironment and Sierra Club sued Reliant Energy Inc. -- later RRI Energy, the former operator of the power plant -- in 2007, alleging pollution of the Conemaugh River with toxins that could affect plant and animal life.

The river is formed in Johnstown by the confluence of the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers. It flows northwest of Blairsville and, with Loyalhanna Creek, forms the Kiskiminetas River near Saltsburg.

The Kiskiminetas-Conemaugh watershed is considered one of the most polluted in the state because of high levels of acid mine drainage.

Masur said the state Department of Environmental Protection has been involved and has been "incredibly helpful" in trying to mediate the lawsuit against GenOn.

A DEP spokesperson did not issue a comment yesterday about the judge's ruling.

GenOn owns at least a partial interest in and operates six Southwestern Pennsylvania coal-burning power plants. Combined, the six plants can produce enough power to handle the electricity needs of more than 4.2 million homes.

The power plants include three facilities formerly owned by Duquesne Light Co., including the Cheswick Generation Station in Springdale, the Brunot Island Generating Station in the Ohio River west of Downtown and the Elrama Generation Station in Washington County.

Other plants in Western Pennsylvania include the Seward Generating Station in New Florence in Westmoreland County. GenOn owns a partial share of the generating capacity of the Keystone Generating Station in Shelocta in Indiana County and 16.5 percent of the Conemaugh Generating Station, and operates both for multiple owners.

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