Delay sought for trash-burning power plant in Fairfield

Patrick Mahoney, president of Energy Answers Baltimore Inc.

A New York-based company that had announced more than a year ago it was ready to start building a disputed trash-burning power plant in south Baltimore is now seeking a waiver of a state-imposed deadline to begin work on the $1 billion project within the next month

Energy Answers Baltimore filed a motion with the state Public Service Commission asking to defer the regulatory panel's requirement that the company start construction by Feb. 5 at a now-shuttered FMC chemical plant in Fairfield.

Company officials say they may still start construction by then, but haven't been able to line up enough purchasers of the plant's power or suppliers of waste to burn to get the financing they need for the project. And they say they've yet to complete a required study to show that the 160-megawatt facility will meet recently adopted air pollution limits.

"We need to sell most of the energy in order to finance the project," said Patrick Mahoney, chairman, president and CEO of Energy Answers International, which is headquartered in Albany. He said he was confident those deals would be reached soon, but declined to predict when.

The PSC, which must approve new power plants, issued a notice Wednesday inviting public comment on the company's request to waive the deadline. Comments must be filed by Thursday.

The Fairfield Renewable Energy Project was approved by the commission in August 2010. In October 2010, the company said it would begin construction by the end of the year. It has enjoyed support from city and state officials, a Curtis Bay area community group and labor unions eager for the hundreds of jobs that company officials say the project would create.

But environmentalists contend the plant would increase air pollution in the Curtis Bay area where residents are already exposed to power plant and factory emissions. They also argue it would discourage recycling and make it harder to build other "green" energy projects. Company officials counter that the plant will reduce pollution by diverting waste from landfills and incinerators, and will help the state meet its goal of lowering emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases.

The Energy Answers project generated controversy again last year when lawmakers approved a new financial incentive to build the plant, making it eligible for potentially lucrative renewable energy credits on par with wind turbines and solar panels. Gov. Martin O'Malley rebuffed appeals from environmental groups to veto the legislative change, which his administration had supported. The company, meanwhile, donated $100,000 to the Democratic Governors Association, which O'Malley heads — a gift the governor's office says had no bearing on his decision to sign the law.

Mahoney, in an interview Friday, said the company is working to strike more deals to sell its electricity to other government entities or utilities. To date, Energy Answers has reached deals to sell 25 megawatts' worth of electricity to the Baltimore region's local governments and up to 10 megawatts to the state Department of General Services, according to company officials.

The company CEO said he was confident enough municipal waste could also be found to supply the 4,000 tons the facility is supposed to burn daily. Two of the region's largest sources of trash, Baltimore city and Baltimore County, recently agreed to new or extended contracts to burn it at the BRESCO waste-to-energy incinerator in south Baltimore. But Mahoney said there are ample public and private sources of trash in Maryland and in neighboring states that might be tapped.

In its latest filing with the PSC, the company says it's reached an agreement to get some of the waste it would burn through the Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-state agency that manages trash transfer stations, landfills and recycling programs for several local governments. But Steve Tomczewski, executive director for MES' environmental operations, said the parties are still in talks.

Nor has the company secured a lease to use a portion of the 92-acre former chemical plant site, Mahoney acknowledged. He said that was imminent as well.

The request for delay irks environmental activists. They say the company is effectively asking for an indefinite extension to avoid having to re-apply for state approval and potentially face even stricter pollution-control requirements.

The state rule mandating construction start within 18 months of a project winning approval is meant to ensure that power plants operate with the most up-to-date pollution controls, said Jennifer Peterson, a lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington. The company has known since 2010 that the plant would have to meet new air quality limits on emissions of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, another EIP lawyer, Leah Kelly, said.

Kurt Krammer, the company's project manager for the Fairfield facility, said that glitches in guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency on the new air-pollution limits delayed the company's ability to evaluate whether the facility could meet them. The company's filing says it's finished the study needed to demonstrate compliance with one limit, but is still working on the other.