Coal-fired power plant in Healy accused of violating the Clean Air Act

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) — Golden Valley Electric Association and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have reached a settlement agreement over accusations a troubled coal-fired power plant owned by the rural utility exceeded lawful mercury emissions while operating in 2015 and 2016.

More than $300 million dollars have gone into construction and upgrades of the 50MW plant, a coal-fired boiler which creates steam to drive electricity-producing turbines. Built in the 1990s with money from the Department of Energy and the State of Alaska, it has never operated correctly and remained unused for nearly 16 years until 2015.

GVEA purchased the plant in 2013. After retrofitting and upgrades, the plant fired up in 2015. Trouble with the system — it suffered two explosions — caused the plant to shut down again in early 2017.

During that brief run, the federal civil penalty action accuses GVEA of violating the Clean Air Act, and comes just as GVEA is working to bring the plant, known as Healy Unit 2, online once again. It started operating the plant this month, first with oil then transitioning to coal, with hopes of offering commercial electricity to the interior communities it serves by September.

Mercury, a known neuro-toxin, is federally regulated as a hazardous air pollutant. In 2011, the EPA adopted new regulations for coal- and oil-fired power plants, with the goal of reducing toxic emissions. 2015 was the deadline to comply with the regulations, known as Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

According to the EPA, in 2016, reduced mercury emissions across the nation prevented 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks.

Some tests placed mercury emissions from Healy Unit 2 at 19% above lawful standards, according to the federal complaint. Regulators told KTUU while mercury is a serious air pollutant, the violations at Healy Unit 2 -- a formerly state-owned power plant which has never operated correctly -- likely did not have a significant public health impact. The complaint makes no mention of known health problems stemming from the problem emissions.

GVEA self-reported its test results to the federal agency, which took action “to assure that when they do start the unit back up that it starts up in compliance with the mercury limits and that they continuously monitor for mercury,” John Keenan, an environmental engineer with the EPA’s Seattle office told KTUU.

The settlement agreement, which is open for public comment, calls for a $110,000 fine, the installation of emissions control technology, and routine monitoring and reporting.

“Golden Valley underestimated the effort and the complexity of restarting this plant that we got from the State of Alaska. We are on a learning curve and we are getting there. Part of the learning was a problem that ran afoul with the EPA,” said Cory Borgeson, President and C.E.O. of GVEA.

Borgeson said Healy Unit 2’s successful operation is long-awaited, and should help reduce utility bills for residents in Fairbanks, Delta Junction, Nenana, Healy, and Cantwell.

A prior settlement agreement with the EPA required GVEA to ensure it was compliant with regulation standards for nitrogen oxide emissions, which are also regulated under the Clean Air Act. The action came in anticipation of GVEA’s reactivation or restart of Healy Unit 2.

The use of selective catalytic reduction on Healy Unit 1, a coal-fired 25 MW electric generating unit established in 1967, is working well, according to the EPA and Borgeson, and has substantially reduced mercury output.

The same technology and other measures are expected to work well on Healy Unit 2, said Borgeson, who likened the process of bringing the unit online to starting up a car engine that hasn’t run in a while, requiring a warm-up period to get the components operating smoothly.