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Maine Town Wants EPA To Stop Border-Crossing Pollution

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Residents in the border town of Elliot, Maine have voted to ask the EPA to test air quality downwind of a Portsmouth power plant. Eliot is just across the river from Schiller Station, a three-boiler plant run by Public Service of New Hampshire. Two of its boilers burn mostly coal, and a third burns primarily wood chips.

Down-wind activism against Schiller Station has been around for decades, but it got a boost from a Sierra Club study two years ago that modeled air pollution from the plant. The model predicts when the plant is running at full power it could violate the Clean Air Act.

Credit Evaluation of Compliance with 1-hour S02 NAAQS / Sierra Club
Sierra Club
The Sierra Clubs model of air pollution from Schiller Station bolstered activists' efforts to petition the EPA, but because it doesn't model actual operation of the power plant, it alone might not be enough to convince the EPA to intercede.

PSNH disputes the study, and points to air quality measurements taken at Peirce Island that show the plant is in compliance. But the island is about two and a half miles down-river and not in the zone where the Sierra Club predicts the worst pollution.

A Year And A Half Effort

Kimberly Richards lives in Elliot and spent a year and a half organizing the push for the petition. She says she first became concerned about air quality in South Elliot a year and a half ago, and at first she was on her own. But as time has gone on others in the community – many who participated in an earlier effort called Eliot Residents Against Schiller Station Emissions – began to get behind her.

Their efforts culminated last night when the town voted 908-561 to direct the Board of Selectmen “to investigate and make findings concerning possible adverse impacts” of contaminants from Schiller Station on air quality.

Richards says says no matter what happens she considers the effort a success. “It’s got everybody in town talking about it, and they have their eye on Schiller and PSNH, and they’re asking important questions,” she says.

The petition process is part of a “good neighbor” provision of the Clean Air Act, called section 126. Its intent was to allow downwind states to call for the EPA to step in when upwind states fail to limit emissions. Richards says she expects the town will be relying primarily on the Sierra Club study to prove that is the case for Schiller Station.

Enough Evidence in Eliot?

This type of petition is not usually made to start investigations. Rather, their purpose is to ask the EPA to step in once a violation has been demonstrated.

“Monitoring is generally a component of 126 petitions,” says Dave Conroy, chief of Air Programs for the EPA in New England.

Air quality data from Eliot is old and out of date. Since the data was collected Schiller’s boilers have been converted to burn coal and biomass, and both Schiller and nearby Newington Stations have started to run much less frequently. A recent report from the Public Utilities Commission says Schiller’s coal boilers ran just over 10 percent of the time in 2012, and Newington less than 5 percent. Newington is actually a bigger driver of air pollution in the region, but only when it is turned on.

Credit Report on Investigation into Market Conditions... / NH Public Utilities Commission
NH Public Utilities Commission
Data from the PUC show the effect cheap natural gas has had on the older, less competitive coal and oil fired plants at Schiller and Newington Stations. Schiller Unit 5, which burns wood chips, runs a great deal more frequently because it generates renewable energy subsidies.

This is weakness of the Sierra Club study, which PSNH calls “flawed”. Conroy says that after a cursory look at the Sierra Club study “our preliminary conclusion is they were over-estimating, using worst case scenario rather than current conditions.”

But the EPA standards were tightened three years ago, so that if air quality is impaired for even an hour power plants can be found in violation, previously air quality had to be bad for 24-hours for a violation. Conroy says there could be merit to the claim that the plant is out of compliance, but there simply isn’t enough data to be sure.

He says the EPA is basically still in the middle of changing its standard and is still determining which plants need to be brought into compliance, and are starting with chronic violators. For example, PSNH’s Merrimack station in Bow had 82 days where the 1-hour standard was exceeded, and the EPA is working to bring them into compliance.

“It seems like this community is hoping to jump start that process more quickly using Sierra Club data,” he concluded.

Richardson says with the vote freshly finished, the town of Eliot has to decide what to include in its petition, which she hopes the EPA will find compelling. “Anytime that the plant comes roaring into action the fact is that during that time period that they’re fired off it’s putting out pollution into the air and it’s harming people,” Richardson says.

Conroy says from what he has heard the town is interested in first expanding monitoring. The EPA’s first step will be to reach out the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, to see what can be done whether or not the petition is accepted.