Restart of Greenidge Power Plant Hinged on DEC Downplaying Toxic Landfill

DRESDEN, June 12, 2018 — A coal ash landfill next to the Greenidge Generation power plant continues to discharge heavy metals into the Keuka Outlet and local groundwater more than three years after it formally committed to a complete cleanup by Oct. 1, 2016, documents show. 

The landfill, known as Lockwood Hills, holds toxic leachate in an unlined pond that it had agreed to remove and replace, while properly treating the leachate and disposing of leachate sediment.

The prompt cleanup contracted in a February 2015 consent agreement with the state hasn’t happened. HechtPhote

Instead the state Department of Environmental Conservation has acceded to the landfill’s requests to push back the cleanup deadline by more than three years, to Nov. 1, 2019.

Meanwhile, the DEC has repeatedly postponed a formal review of the landfill’s outdated permit to discharge leachate waters into the Keuka Outlet, which empties into Seneca Lake. 

The stakes for the lake and local well water are unclear. But a 2016 study by Duke University of unlined ponds at 21 coal ash landfills in the Southeastern U.S. found that toxic contamination was widespread and persistent.

In addition to relaxing the cleanup schedule at Lockwood, the DEC determined that the landfill had no bearing on a critically important ruling it made about the Greenidge power plant, the source of virtually all its waste. Entirely ignoring inevitable future water quality violations at Lockwood, the DEC declared in June 2016 that restarting the power plant “will not have a significant adverse environmental impact.”aLandfillArt2READY

That sweeping judgment enabled  Greenidge Generation’s owners, Atlas Holdings, to restart the power plant without preparing an environmental impact statement, or EIS.

The plant began generating electricity again last March after a six-year hiatus, and it resumed dumping waste products at Lockwood Hills.

Lawyers for the Sierra Club allege in a lawsuit that the the DEC broke the law when it opted to exclude the landfill from its analysis of the environmental impacts of restarting the plant.

An EIS is typically called for under the State Environmental Quality Review Act whenever a project’s potential impacts are in doubt. The agency’s “negative declaration” in June 2016 allowed Greenidge to sidestep the EIS process — squelching a public airing of a host of environmental issues, including the landfill violations, massive discharges of heated water by the plant, fish kills and noise, among others.READYDECKocherREADY

But lawyers for Greenidge and the DEC recently argued in Yates County Supreme Court that the plant and landfill are entirely separate companies, and they defended the DEC’s negative declaration. In making their oral pleadings to Judge William Kocher, those lawyers glossed over history linking the two facilities.

The plant was built in the 1930s and operated for decades as a coal-burner. Around 1979, the facility’s owners bought a nearby farm from Ira Lockwood, a mechanic at the plant, for use as a dumping ground for its coal ash.

The landfill, which is directly across Route 14 from the plant, had been accepting the coal ash for more than three decades when in December 2011 then-plant owner AES Greenidge filed for federal bankruptcy protection.

Months before that bankruptcy filing, AES Greenidge wrote a “Layup Plan” to mothball the plant. It took similar steps for Lockwood, which wrote its own Layup Plan.GreenidgeREADY 

“As an integral element of power station operations, Lockwood Ash Disposal site is also being prepared for protective layup,” the plant’s Layup document states.

Atlas Holdings, which is based in Greenwich, Conn., bought the plant in 2014 and announced plans to restart it using coal as its fuel. It later switched its primary fuel to natural gas. Atlas owns Greenidge Generation Holdings LLC, which, a company spokesman said, owns Greenidge Generation LLC, owner of the plant, and Lockwood Hills LLC, owner of the landfill.

The current general manager of the plant, Dale Irwin, signed the February 2015 consent agreement on behalf of the landfill. He identified himself on the document as vice president of Lockwood Hills LLC.

That document stated that the DEC had concluded that Lockwood’s unlined leachate pond was illegally leaking boron, manganese, magnesium, iron, sodium and sulfate in excess of water quality standards. It required an engineering report by August 2015 with remediation plans, including a formal schedule to:

— Segregate stormwater from leachate at the site.

— Re-route leachate to an on-site holding tank …

— Treat and dispose of leachate …

— Remove and dispose of contaminated leachate in the leachate pond.

The engineering report’s schedule, the consent decree said, “shall require implementation be completed no later than Oct. 1, 2016.”DaleIrwinREADY 

Irwin also issued a public statement in October 2015, published in local media, that said: “The existing (unlined) leachate pond will be removed, and any sediment will be properly disposed of. A new, fully-lined leachate pond will be constructed to capture leachate, which will then be routed to the on-site water treatment facility for treatment.” 

Those steps haven’t been completed. 

On Feb. 24, 2016, the DEC pushed back the final implementation date 25 months — to Nov. 1, 2018. Then on July 10, 2017, it postponed the deadline again, this time to Nov. 1, 2019. 

This week, the DEC issued the following statement: “Lockwood Hills is currently in compliance with the DEC-issued Consent Order, as amended.”ChartsREADY

Meanwhile, Lockwood Hills is continuing to monitor pollution and taking steps toward a cleanup, as reflected in a December 2017 report by Daigler Engineering and a March 2017 mercury minimization report, also by Daigler, a Greenidge contractor.

A key goal of the cleanup is to segregate and treat the leachate rather than discharging it into Keuka Outlet.

Daigler summarized Lockwood’s leachate quality in the third quarter of 2017 in a chart that showed measurements for arsenic, boron, chloride, iron, manganese, selenium, sodium and sulfate exceeded state standards. Measurements for several other substances, including mercury and barium, were not listed.

According to the mercury minimization report, the state limit (water quality-based effluent level, or WQBEL) for mercury is 0.7 nanograms per liter. The limit set in Lockwood’s discharge permit is 50 nanograms per liter, or 71 times the state standard.

In each quarter of 2016, mercury readings from flow into the leachate pond ranged between the state standard and the permit limit. But all results from mercury discharges from the leachate pond into Keuka Outlet met the state standard, according to Daigler.

AshtrackerREADY

Results of samples from monitoring wells at the landfill between 2013 and 2016 were reported by the independent website ashtracker. They show levels of arsenic, boron, manganese and sulfate as pollutants above safe levels.

After the 2015 consent agreement, Lockwood had to decide whether to treat its toxic leachate on-site or to segregate it and ship it elsewhere for treatment.

DEC staff “had anticipated that leachate would be collected in tanks and sent off-site” to a facility licensed to treat it, according to a letter dated Nov. 30, 2015 from DEC attorney Dennis P. Harkawik to Lockwood attorney Danielle Mettler-LaFeir.

But in late 2015, Lockwood was proposing something entirely different. It said it wanted to develop an on-site leachate management system that, according to Harkawik, would rely on mixing leachate and stormwater “to achieve permit discharge results” — at least during the development phase.DennisHarkawikREADY

In his letter to Mettler-LaFeir, Harkawik said such commingling of leachate and stormwater was not allowed under the landfill’s discharge permit because “dilution is not considered treatment.”

Another problem, Harkawik explained, was that Lockwood was proposing to model its leachate management system on a “primitive” one used by a smaller, coal ash landfill in Broome County that has been closed. Because Lockwood’s owners planned to reopen the Dresden landfill — to accept new wastes from the soon-to-be-reopened power plant — any on-site system would need to be more sophisticated. Harkawik sent Lockwood back to the drawing board.

IDanielleM-LREADYn a Jan. 15, 2016 letter, Mettler-LaFeir, the landfill’s attorney, wrote Harkawik that Lockwood would need to complete a leachate flow monitoring program before designing a leachate management system. She asked the DEC to delete from the 2015 consent agreement the Oct. 1, 2016 deadline for full implementation of the leachate management system. She proposed a new deadline:  Dec. 31, 2018.

The DEC agreed to give Lockwood 25 of the 27 months of breathing room Mettler-LaFeir requested — to Nov. 1, 2018 — only to later extend it for another year.

Michael McKeon, a spokesman and lobbyist for Greenidge Generation, said this week that the DEC wanted to be certain that there was sufficient continuous leachate flow data to appropriately design a leachate management system that accounted for short-term variables.

McKeon added that the DEC’s second deadline extension was necessary “because unusual drought conditions occurred during the original monitoring period.”McKeonREADY

Irwin and Mettler-LaFeir did not return phone calls seeking comment last week. McKeon, a partner at Mercury LLC, called to say he was responding to the request to interview Irwin.

McKeon said the latest DEC full implementation deadline — Nov. 1, 2019 — will allow sufficient time for the landfill to remove the unlined leachate pond and install the leachate management system, as well as to remove and dispose of the leachate sediment. Once those steps are complete, he said, “untreated leachate will not be discharged to the Keuka Outlet.”

McKeon said Lockwood has already taken steps to segregate leachate from storm water.

The same week in early January 2016 that Mettler-LaFeir asked to amend the consent decree’s deadline for full implementation, the DEC announced that it planned to renew Lockwood’s permit to discharge into Keuka Outlet without any formal review.

That public notice drew swift negative reactions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes, a petitioner in the lawsuit Judge Kocher is hearing against the DEC and Greenidge.AlyssaArcayaREADY

In a Feb. 12, 2016 memo to the DEC, Alyssa Arcaya said the EPA opposed the administrative renewal of the discharge permit in light of water quality violations at the landfill, changes at the associated Greenidge power plant and new EPA rules on coal ash landfills.

A day earlier, Peter Gamba, president of CPFL, had written the DEC to complain about the agency’s bid to renew the permit without a review.

The DEC responded by placing the landfill on a list of sites scheduled for review, but it assigned such a low priority — No. 576 on a list of 687 — that an actual review would be unlikely to take place for several years.

That action prompted Mary Anne Kowalski of Romulus to complain to the DEC that such a low priority ignored the EPA’s stated objections. Kowalski is a member of Seneca Lake Guardian, another lawsuit petitioner with Sierra Club and CPFL.KowalskiREADY 2

In a July 29, 2017 email to the DEC, Kowalski said the agency had improperly scored the priority of the review. 

A month later, the  DEC responded in an email to Kowalski that said the priority score had been changed from 576 to 47 (out of 687), presumably speeding up the review process.

Meanwhile, Judge Kocher is considering requests by Greenidge and the DEC to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the plant’s water intake and discharge permits. 

The record in that case includes a series of affidavits filed by petitioners, including one by Kowalski that details the chronology of the DEC’s enforcement record concerning Lockwood Hills.

Another affidavit from an expert on toxic algae said massive warm water discharges from the Greenidge power plant could spur harmful algal blooms on Seneca Lake near the Keuka Outlet. The other affidavits catalogue a host of environmental issues the DEC ignored when it summarily stated that the plant’s restart would not have an impact on the environment.

Kocher said at the May 22 hearing that he would consider those affidavits only as confirmation that the petitioners had legal standing to sue. 

He said he wouldn’t consider the substance of the sworn statements because they were filed too late, a ruling lawyers for Greenidge and the DEC had requested.

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