Construction of Fairfield power plant ordered halted over air quality permit violation

The owner of a planned power plant in Fairfield faces millions of dollars in fines and has been ordered to halt construction because company officials didn't buy enough emissions credits to offset air pollution the facility is expected to emit, according to state officials.

Maryland Department of the Environment officials could fine Energy Answers International, the New York-based company that is building the plant, more than $8 million for the violation — $25,000 for each day since it began construction last August. The department sent the company a letter June 19 notifying it of the violations, and state energy regulators overseeing the project posted it online Monday.

Environmental groups and local students have protested the project, which has faced delays since it was proposed to state energy regulators in 2009. While organizers say it will provide renewable energy and reduce landfilling, opponents consider it an incinerator and say it will worsen air quality in a part of the city that already ranks among the most polluted areas in the country.

The letter from the Department of the Environment gives Energy Answers a chance to pursue a settlement with the state and asks the company to halt construction until it can show it has enough emissions credits.

But opponents of the project said they plan to seize on the violation and argue that the construction permit is invalid.

"It really brings the validity of the construction permit into question," said Jennifer Duggan, managing attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based environmental group. "They've failed to obtain the offsets that are required."

Under conditions set by the Maryland Public Service Commission, Energy Answers was required to buy credits representing more than 1,500 tons of emissions of pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, if it was to begin and continue construction of the facility. The plant is designed to burn about 4,000 tons per day of processed trash in four identical units, generating 120 megawatts of electricity.

Energy Answers provided proof to state environmental regulators that it had obtained enough emissions offsets for construction of one of the four units on Aug. 5, 2013, a day before it was required to begin construction under an order from the Public Service Commission, according to the letter. It began construction the next day, the letter said.

But according to the letter, Sasol North America Inc., a Houston-based manufacturer of detergents and chemicals, notified the state June 2 that Energy Answers failed to buy about 80 tons of emissions offsets that it had said it would buy from Sasol. Sasol spokesman Russell Johnson said the company had been renewing its option to buy the credits on a quarterly basis, but that it did not renew the option during the most recent quarter.

Energy Answers officials did not respond to requests for comment. The Public Service Commission has not posted any response from the company.

Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson declined to comment beyond the letter.

The letter says each additional day the project goes without the required emission offsets is an additional day of violation, each carrying another $25,000 in fines. It does not set any deadline or timeline for the violation to be resolved.

Environmental groups say the violation is a concern because the emissions offsets are a key means for bringing areas that don't meet federal air quality standards, which include Fairfield, within standards set under the federal Clean Air Act.

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