Penn State tries to allay gas plant fears

mcarroll@centredaily.comOctober 31, 2013 

— Penn State officials on Wednesday likened their plan to convert an on-campus power plant to driving a hybrid car.

University officials said the conversion of the West Campus steam plant from coal to natural gas will help meet stricter air pollution standards set to take effect in 2016 while providing safe, reliable and efficient energy to the Penn State campus.

“It’s like driving a Prius,” said Paul Moser, superintendent of steam services at Penn State.

Moser, continuing his analogy, compared the existing coal plant to a gas-guzzling minivan and said renewable energy options, like an electric car, are not yet cheap or efficient enough to be a realistic option for the large campus.

It seemed to do little to ease the concerns of a few dozen residents gathered Wednesday at the State College Area High School.

Penn State employees, neighbors and others asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to deny a permit the university is seeking for the project. And they urged Penn State to take another look at renewable energy sources.

About a dozen concerned residents spoke Wednesday at the public hearing held by the DEP. Others held signs that had messages like “gas stinks,” “good jobs are green jobs,” and “fracking is bad for our health.”

Residents challenged the assertion that natural gas would offer lower emissions than coal, especially if the gas comes from the Marcellus Shale play. They said officials should look at how that fuel is extracted and transported when calculating its environmental impact.

“If we sincerely want to reduce emissions, the time is now to invest in renewable energy,” said Pam Steckler. “Penn State should have taken leadership (in improving) standards long ago.”

Janet Engeman, another neighbor of the steam plant, called for the university to explore other locations. She said when the plant was built, neighboring areas weren’t as developed and populated as they are now.

The location puts neighbors at an “unacceptable risk posed by accident or deliberate act of terrorism,” she said.

Residents spoke for about an hour on the record at the public hearing. The transcripts of their testimony will be sent to the DEP and reviewed before a decision is made on whether Penn State can have its permit.

DEP officials said they called for the hearing because of local interest and concerns about the project.

Converting the plant to natural gas first caused public outrage when Columbia Gas said it would have to run a new pipeline through Highlands neighborhood streets.

After much negative feedback, Penn State asked Columbia Gas officials to investigate alternate routes, and they chose one that will travel through campus, to the tune of an additional $10 million.

The pipeline now will originate at a current Columbia line near Porter Road, travel to and along University Drive, cross and travel along Park Avenue, turn south on Shortlidge Road, proceed to Curtin Road, and travel along Burrowes Road and, finally, along an alley to connect at the steam plant.

Work on the pipeline is underway, and officials said Wednesday they expect that part of the project to be done by August 2014.

Penn State officials said the conversion will help the university meet changing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air pollution standards and reduce traffic by eliminating the trucks that bring 70,000 tons of coal to campus each year.

Matt Carroll can be reached at 231-4631. Follow him on Twitter @Carrollreporter.

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