Environmental groups allege Pennsylvania coal plant is sending toxic waste down the Susquehanna River

Talen Energy's Brunner Island power plant in York Haven, York County.
Talen Energy's Brunner Island power plant in York Haven, York County. (Talen Energy Corp. / The Morning Call)

Environmentalists are threatening to sue a coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania for contaminating the Susquehanna River with toxic waste, months after the plant’s owner agreed to eventually burn only natural gas to avoid a similar lawsuit over air and water pollution.

The Environmental Integrity Project and Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper warned plant owner Talen Energy on Wednesday that they and other groups plan to file a lawsuit, alleging that toxic pollutants are leaching out of ash and waste pits at the Brunner Island Generating Station in York County and washing into the Susquehanna.


Ted Evgeniadis, the riverkeeper, said he has measured elevated levels of arsenic, boron, sulfate and lithium in a creek and groundwater springs that flow into the Susquehanna near the plant about 50 miles upstream of the Chesapeake Bay.

After record July rainfall filled Chesapeake Bay waterways with trash and debris, Comptroller Peter Franchot said Maryland was "literally drowning in Pennsylvania’s trash." It's impossible to quantify how much of the detritus actually came down the Susquehanna River, but it was likely a lot.

The warning launches a process that eventually could force federal environmental regulators to step in. Citizens can file lawsuits to demand compliance with the federal Clean Water Act, but only after providing 60 days notice of their intent to take the legal action. Talen will have a chance to explain or address the environmentalists’ concerns during that period.


“We’re hopefully stopping heavy metals from entering the river and traveling downstream to the bay,” Evgeniadis said.

Talen Energy officials, who were given notice of the lawsuit Wednesday morning, said they could not comment on pending litigation.

The pollution is the latest concern to arise regarding the Susquehanna and the contamination it might be sending into the Chesapeake. The river provides more than 90 percent of the fresh water in upper portions of the bay, and it also can deliver massive amounts of pollution — as evidenced by a surge of debris that floodwaters carried through the Conowingo Dam and into the Chesapeake in July.

Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot decried a surge of debris and sediment flowing into bay from upstream states after recent heavy rainstorms.

In a letter to Talen officials, lawyers for the Environmental Integrity Project said the Brunner Island plant is failing to contain coal ash and other waste by holding them in ponds and landfills that either aren’t lined or are leaking. The environmental groups argue high levels of toxins found in a waterway known as Black Gut Creek “could only be explained by leakage” from the storage systems, a circumstance that would violate both the Clean Water Act and the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law.

The environmentalists also raised concerns that in the event of a disaster, there is only an earthen berm holding back more than 3 million tons of ash and waste from entering the creek and the Susquehanna.

And Evgeniadis said he found a pipe releasing waste from the ash ponds that might not be regulated by a water quality permit. The outfall does not align with the coordinates of any permitted waste discharge pipes, so the plant’s permits are either inaccurate or incomplete, he said.

The Brunner Island plant has long raised environmental concerns and is set to stop burning coal by the end of 2028 under a recent settlement with the Sierra Club. Its three coal-fired power units date to the 1960s, and were retrofitted last year to also be capable of burning natural gas.

A month after Maryland environmental regulators demanded the Conowingo Dam's owner do more to help reduce pollution that flows down the Susquehanna River, the company has filed two lawsuits against the state. Exelon Corp. argues it should not be held responsible for pollution it doesn't create.

Under the settlement agreement, Talen denied any allegations of wrongdoing but said it would curtail use of coal generation to “avoid the costs, delay, and uncertainty of litigation.” For its part, the Sierra Club agreed not to join any legal actions or public criticisms of the Brunner Island plant.

Now, environmental groups that also include the Waterkeeper Alliance and PennEnvironment are picking up where the Sierra Club left off. Evgeniadis said he doesn’t think the settlement went far enough, and other groups agreed more needed to be done to address the plant’s impact on the environment.

“We cannot let the Brunner Island power plant run roughshod over our cornerstone environmental laws,” PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur said in a statement. “It sends a dangerous message to industrial facilities in Pennsylvania if it pays to pollute.”

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