Penn State

State College Planning Commission recommends approval of Penn State steam plant project, with continued reservations

Since Penn State officials last appeared before the borough Planning Commission, the plan to convert the West Campus steam plant from coal to natural gas has changed, notably with beefed up security.

Officials presented the final land development plan to the commission on Wednesday and, after a vote failed to give blanket approval to the plant, the commission agreed 4-2 to recommend acceptance with the condition that Penn State receive state Department of Environmental Protection permit approval.

Penn State applied last October for air quality approval, which includes construction of two new, natural gas boilers, modifying two existing boilers and installing two diesel tanks.

DEP spokesman Dan Spadoni said Wednesday he had no update on the status of Penn State’s permit application, as officials don’t yet have the transcript of last week’s public hearing, held at State High.

Commission members Rich Kalin, Jon Eich, Mike Roeckel and Scott Dutt favored the conditional approval. Anita Genger and Evan Myers opposed.

A Planning Commission recommendation was not required on the plan, and final approval lies with staff.

The commission has heard from Penn State several times on its plans to convert the steam plant, which sits at the intersection of Burrowes Road and West College Avenue. The university is converting to natural gas to meet federal air quality guidelines going into effect at the start of 2016.

While borough residents’ main concern has been the 12-inch, high-pressure pipeline that is being installed to serve the plant, some residents and commission members have raised safety concerns related to the plant itself.

Engineer Jim California said a security assessment was performed at the site and more robust fences and walls were added to the plan.

Two 25,000-gallon above-ground tanks that will hold backup diesel fuel were of particular concern to commissioners Wednesday. They wondered if such tanks even are allowed in that area and how any spills would be contained.

Borough Planning Director Carl Hess said a supplemental zoning provision states that tanks may be allowed when they are at least 50 or 100 feet from property lines, depending on tank size, and include an area for spill containment.

However, staff determined that provision does not apply in the University Planned District, in which the steam plant sits. Planner Anne Messner also said the steam plant tanks will be more than 100 feet from property lines.

The spill capacity is to be 150 percent of each tank, and California said he thought the plan shows only a 100 percent capacity.

Commission Chairman Evan Myers, who works as chief operating officer for AccuWeather Inc., persisted with questions on what would happen during a large rain event.

“So what if the container has some water in it from a rainstorm and then the tank ruptures?” he asked. “Couldn’t it overflow?”

After some back and forth, with Penn State Physical Plant officials Paul Moser and Rob Cooper pointing out the tanks are double-walled and monitored constantly, California said the group would add the extra capacity, if necessary.

Cooper said there are standards for such installations, which Penn State is meeting.

“I appreciate that,” Myers said, noting the plant is in the middle of town and passed by thousands of people. “Standards are standards and safety is safety.”

Other concerns remain, including that the plant still will sit at the edge of downtown. Though the downtown wasn’t as active when the plant was erected 80 years ago, some worry about the potential danger of its proximity to people and other buildings.

To the project group’s statement that the steam plant has been a good neighbor to the borough, Genger disagreed, based on keeping the plant at its current location.

“That seems to me to be another indicator of how out of touch Penn State has been with the citizens of the borough,” she said, adding that she and others who live nearby hear plant noise and beeping of coal trucks, the latter which she said she recognizes will disappear with the conversion.

Myers wondered, with the complexity of Penn State’s utility lines winding to and from the plant, how much more difficult a conversion would be in 20 to 30 years, implying now would be a better time to act.

“It’s a question of money; I understand that,” he said. “This doesn’t really fit into the downtown master plan or the revitalization of downtown.

“In the future, keeping this plant there is not a good idea.”