BY: Layla A. Jones
Councilwoman Cindy Bass released a statement Wednesday proposing SEPTA move or halt the construction of its Nicetown natural gas plant amid environmental and health concerns.
”Based on the considerable amount of environmental and economic stress already plaguing this community and the lack of data which could potentially provide guidance and information on the long-term effects of this exposure, we believe that the only responsible thing to do at this time is to respectfully request that SEPTA either move this power generator to another location that does not have a large residential base or hold on plans to build at the Wayne Junction site until the data can give us the critical information we need. This is the only responsible thing to do.”
In the statement, Bass amicably acknowledges SEPTA’s general functionality, saying she’s held the transit agency “in high regard.” However, Bass went on to say the transportation agency’s response to concerns about the plant, set to be constructed at SEPTA’s Midvale bus complex, has been unsatisfactory.
“The answer to the question of what will be the environmental impact of the plant on Nicetown, has, so far, been quite elusive,” Bass’s statement said.
In October 2015, SEPTA announced a proposal for the North Philadelphia natural gas plant, touting it as one of two initiatives designed to increase SEPTA’s environmental sustainability and cut costs. Called a combined heat and power (CHP) plant, the project would create natural gas generators to power the Wayne Junction Substation and the Midvale bus garage.
SEPTA contracted Noresco, a national certified energy savings company, to design the plant, which will be able to create enough energy to power SEPTA’s Regional Rail system in the event of a power outage.
Soon after SEPTA proposed the plant, environmentalists, social justice groups and Nicetown residents expressed concern about the environmental and community health impacts of the plant. A October 2016 community meeting was held between Bass, SEPTA and environmental groups, which Bass said have been the most outspoken critics about the plant.
In September 2016, a representative from Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER) told the Tribune the organization opposed the “exploitative project.” One environmental group called 350 Philadelphia has organized collective efforts to block the plant, including attending SEPTA board meetings and protesting at the November 2016 SEPTA board meeting during which board members approved the construction of the plant.
An editorial by 350 Philadelphia Communications Director Laura Cofsky said burning natural gas releases harmful emissions that contribute to climate change including carbon dioxide and methane. Cofsky also said natural gas emissions will increase the release of particles that adversely affect human health.
A 2016 report from the American Lung Association found that Philadelphia has the 12th-worst air particle pollution in the country. Bass’s statement said the zip code adjacent to the Wayne Junction train station has the highest rate of childhood asthma hospitalization and the third highest number of asthma cases in the city.
During a conference call with the Tribune, SEPTA officials said their project meets all standards imposed by the EPA and local, state and national guidelines. A more in-depth analysis found the plant will cut SEPTA’s carbon dioxide output by more than 40 percent and reduce particulates by almost 100 percent, said Chief Engineer Dave Montvydas.
Montvydas said a third party study of the Midvale area found particulate matter and nitrogen oxide will “barely increase.”
SEPTA already has zoning for the plant and needs a permit to move forward with construction.
Mitch Chanin, a representative from 350 Philadelphia, said the group was grateful for and happy to see Bass’ statement. The organization would still like to see Bass enact measures to rezone the project, though Bass said in her statement “time would not be on our side” for such an effort.
“We’re concerned abut the impact of air pollution on people who live and work and go to school nearby, and then we’re also concerned about climate change, global warming and believe strongly that we should be investing in clean renewable energy and not in the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure,” Chanin said of the group’s overall concerns.
Said Fran Kelly, SEPTA assistant general manger for public and government affairs, “We’ve made a decision to move forward. We feel like we’ve done our homework with that.”