Rockingham coal plant earns distinction as dirtiest

by Amy Kingsley

Belews Creek, a coal-fired steam station just northwest of Greensboro, spewed more of the gases that contribute to respiratory problems in 2006 than any other power plant in North Carolina, according to preliminary data released by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Duke Energy-owned power plant, which is the second largest in the state, emitted 95,296 tons of sulfur dioxide and 21,179 tons of nitrogen oxide last year. The gases contribute to ground-level ozone and soot, byproducts linked to asthma attacks and decreased lung capacity.

The Belews Creek Steam Station has been in operation since the 1970s. Older coal-fired plants like it have come under fire in recent years from environmental groups because they contribute to air pollution and global warming.

“It’s a big old nasty plant,” said Jim Warren, executive director of the NC Waste Awareness and Reduction Network.

Emissions from Belews Creek are of particular concern to residents of Guilford County and the Piedmont Triad. Pollutants from the plant have contributed to ozone levels in excess of the standard set by the EPA. Guilford and Davidson counties also have high levels of particulate matter pollution, which is caused by vehicles and fixed sources like Belews Creek.

To avoid penalties from the federal government like suspension of highway funds, governments in the Piedmont Triad entered into an Early Action Compact in 2004 that requires reductions in air pollution by the end of 2007. If the area is found not to be in attainment by Dec. 31, the federal government will impose stringent new restrictions that will likely damage the economically-depressed region’s ability to attract new industry.

“We are committed to making significant emissions reductions,” said Marilyn Lineberger, a Duke Energy spokesperson. “But we are asking for patience.”

Duke Energy completed construction of a selective catalytic reduction project to reduce nitrogen oxide at Belews Creek in early 2004, according to a company press release. The catalytic reduction system has already reduced Belews Creek’s nitrogen emissions by nearly 80 percent from 1998 levels.

The company is in the process of installing scrubbers to remove most of its sulfur emissions. Lineberger said. She estimated the system would start operating next year.

Belews Creek is the largest power plant operated by Duke Energy in the Carolinas; it produces 2,240 megawatts of power a year and is a baseload plant – one that operates full-time to supply a constant level of electricity to the state. Only the Roxboro power plant, operated by Progress Energy, is larger. The Roxboro plant produces a couple hundred megawatts more energy than Belews Creek and its nitrogen and sulfur emissions are only slightly lower.

“[Belews Creek] is a very large power plant,” Lineberger said. “It’s very important to our customers that it stay online.”

The data on the EPA’s Air Market website is preliminary, but a spokesman from the agency said he did not expect much change in the numbers when they are finalized in two months. The air market site is maintained so that energy companies can monitor and trade credits under the federal sulfur and nitrogen cap-and-trade programs.

“In order for that program to work, everybody must be held accountable for their pollution,” said EPA spokesman John Millet.

In 2002, the General Assembly passed the Clean Smokestacks Act, legislation that requires reductions of 77 percent in nitrogen oxide by 2009 and a 73 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide by 2013. The reductions were to be measured against 1998 levels, when power plants released a total of 245,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 489,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the state’s atmosphere. Power companies have already made progress in reducing nitrogen emissions – the total figure for North Carolina last year was less than half the 1998 amount, in contrast emissions of sulfur have climbed to more than 500,000.

The state requires Duke Energy to file an annual report detailing its environmental progress. According to that document, the company is installing sulfur scrubbers in its largest power plants in order to meet the 2009 and 2013 deadlines.

Warren’s group and others have advocated for increased emphasis on efficiency programs and renewable energy to combat air pollution and global warming. The Waste Awareness and Reduction Network was one member of a coalition fighting Duke Energy’s application to build two new 800-megawatt units at its Cliffside facility. The NC Utilities Commission approved a permit for one unit in late February.

Duke Energy recently postponed a hearing for an air quality permit for the proposed Cliffside generator, but the plant is still a key component of the company’s environmental compliance plan. The proposed Cliffside plant is a super-critical pulverized coal plant, which is cleaner than older units like Belews Creek but not as clean as integrated gasification combined cycle, a process that removes almost all sulfur from the coal.

In addition to reducing nitrogen and sulfur emissions, gasification plants can theoretically be equipped to capture carbon dioxide, which is linked to global warming. The EPA does not regulate carbon emissions, although Congress is considering both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs.

Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers has advocated a federal cap-and-trade program similar to the ones already in place for sulfur and nitrogen. In 2006, Belews Creek discharged more than 14 million tons of carbon dioxide. Progress Energy’s Roxboro plant spewed more than 15 million tons of the greenhouse gas.

Lineberger acknowledged that the company has been investing in cleaner technologies to be in compliance with federal and state clean air regulations, but she said the company has been going beyond the minimum levels.

“We are very dedicated to improving the cleanliness,” she said. “In many cases we went above and beyond what we had to.”

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