Coastal Power Plant Up For Permit Renewal

CPI USA North Carolina LLC has operated the power plant in the Smithville township near Southport since 2006. 

… generates electricity from wood, coal, tire-derived fuels

SOUTHPORT – A small power plant in Southport is seeking to renew its state permit to discharge pollutants into a canal that releases effluent off the coast of Caswell Beach.

The plant’s draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, permit application is an improvement from the current permit, but more needs to be done in identifying what pollutants and how much are being discharged, according to a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Chandra Taylor

“We do plan to make known that this permit is definitely better than the last iteration of the permit, but we also think this permit could be tightened,” said Chandra Taylor, who focuses on water quality in the SELC Chapel Hill office.

The SELC submitted proposed addendums to the permit application Friday, on what was to be the last day of the state Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Resources’ public comment period. The deadline to submit public comments was extended to Monday.

CPI USA North Carolina LLC has operated the plant since 2006. CPI USA North Carolina is a holding company of Capital Power of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, that has a Raleigh address and was previously called Cogentrix of North Carolina LLC, according to state records. The plant produces about 400,000 gallons of wastewater a day.

A portion of that wastewater includes bottom ash, about 17,000 gallons of which is discharged per year.

“This is a small amount of coal ash wastewater,” Taylor said. “Small, but not insignificant.”

Bottom ash, which is the course, incombustible byproduct of coal combustion, has been added to the facility’s wastewater since the plant’s last permit renewal.

‘Significant changes’

NPDES permits are effective for five years. These permits are required for anyone discharging pollutants through a point source, such as a discharge pipe, into public waters. They include limits as to what can be discharged and require monitoring and reporting of the pollutants released to protect human health and the environment.

According to a June 26 letter from the Division of Water Resources to the plant’s manager, the draft permit includes a handful of “significant changes” from the existing permit, including the plant’s reclassification as a major NPDES permitted facility.

Nonpublicly owned discharges are classified as major facilities based on various criteria, including toxic pollutant potential, flow volume and the impact to water quality.

The draft permit includes the condition that plant site oils, hazardous substances or toxic substances be prevented from combining with site runoff that leads to four internal outfalls on the property.

Capital Power Corp.’s Brunswick County plant. Photo: Google Maps

Weekly pH monitoring of those outfalls is also a requirement under the draft permit.

One of those outfalls, identified as 003, captures discharge that should be tested for 126 priority pollutants, which are defined in the Clean Water Act as a subset of toxic pollutants that include heavy metals and specific organic chemicals.

Outfall 003 leads directly into a discharge canal constructed for Progress Energy’s Brunswick steam electric power station, which flows into a pipe that discharges 2,000 feet off the Caswell Beach shore.

The draft NPDES permit changes monitoring of the 126 priority pollutants from grab sampling, which is a single sample taken at a specific time, to composite sampling, which are collected over time and represent the average characteristics of wastewater.

“DEQ is going to require them to conduct this analysis, but they’re not requiring them to conduct it before issuing the permit,” Taylor said.

By conducting that analysis prior to a permit renewal, the plant could identify those pollutants, the release of which would be prohibited under the updated permit, she said.

Kerri Allen, a coastal advocate with the North Carolina Coastal Federation’s southeast office in Wrightsville Beach, called the plant’s wastewater treatment inadequate.

Kerri Allen

“There’s still not an adequate (priority pollutant) list,” she said. “We don’t know exactly what they’re emitting. We want them acting under a new permit immediately.”

The 88-megawatt capacity – enough to power about 58,000 homes – plant sells electric power to Duke Energy and steam power to Archer Daniels Midland, a food processing company.

When reached by telephone, a man at the plant who did not identify himself said the plant manager addressed in the June 26 letter from the Division of Water Resources no longer worked at the facility.

When asked if he or a plant representative wished to comment he responded, “Probably not, but thank you anyway,” before hanging up.

Taylor said the SELC is specifically asking that the plant be required to use the best available technology to treat its wastewater.

“That’s a Clean Water Act requirement that causes polluters to commit to the maximum amount of resources that are economically possible,” she said. “Right now, from what we see in the permit, it appears that the regulator is applying that to only one waste stream and this plant has several waste streams.”

Those waste streams include bottom ash transport water, water associated with runoff from fuel piles and water drained from cooling equipment.

“It is a fact that they’ve been given permission to burn wood that’s been treated with creosote.”

— Chandra Taylor, Southern Environmental Law Center

The plant was converted in 2008 to use a combination of fuels: about 10% coal, 50% wood and the remainder a fuel derived from tires, Taylor said.

“It is a fact that they’ve been given permission to burn wood that’s been treated with creosote,” she said.

Creosote is a gummy, tar-like mix of hundreds of chemicals used as a wood preservative.

Runoff from creosote-treated wood chips on the site could be part of the wastewater emitted from the plant, Taylor said.

“There are still threats that we think can be further mitigated,” she said. “That includes looking at getting to essentially no discharge for coal ash discharge water. We’re also asking for greater storm preparedness.”

Brunswick Environmental Action Team, or BEAT, president Pete Key said in an email that when the organization learned the plant was seeking a permanent renewal of its permit, it sought to find out the effects on the environment and ecosystems. The group also learned that local government officials didn’t realize what was happening.

“Once we understood the basic scope of CPI’s operational plan, we shared our concerns with the local leaders in both Oak Island and Caswell Beach, who were completely unaware that CPI’s operation included burning chipped tires, adulterated wood and creosote-soaked railroad ties,” Key said. “No one we spoke with at the local municipal level was even aware what the CPI facility does, or that a permitting process was taking place. We believe that these permitting processes should be a transparent sharing of information, so all the stakeholders know the outcomes for the environment and the people who depend on it for clean water and air. This one seems to have been taking place under the radar and we are happy for the part we played in getting it out in the open. I have been told that both towns are asking the state for an extended discovery period so they can also understand the stakes.”

Special order by consent

In the summer of 2016, the state Environmental Management Commission granted the plant a special order by consent, or SOC.

A facility may be given an SOC if it is unable to consistently comply with the terms, conditions or limitations in an NPDES permit because of problems related to, for example, design or infrastructure.

CPI USA’s Southport plant’s SOC expires Dec. 30, 2020.

Taylor said the problems preventing the plant from complying with its air quality permit need to be remediated.

The SELC is asking the state to hold a public hearing on the draft permit.

Taylor encourages Brunswick County residents to do the same.

“I think that the community can be a strong advocate in making sure (the plant’s) operating as cleanly as possible and pushing for the outcomes that it wants to see with regard to this plant and their own local experience,” she said. “It is their desire that will drive that.”

About the Author

Trista Talton

Trista Talton is a native North Carolinian who, shortly after graduating from Appalachian State University in 1996, took her first newspaper job as a reporter for the Hickory Daily Record. She has since migrated to the coast, covering everything from education and local governments to law enforcement, the environment and the military, including an embed with Marines in Kuwait for the start of the Iraq war in 2003. She has been a Coastal Review Online contributing writer since 2011 focusing on coastal-related issues from Onslow to Brunswick counties. She lives with her husband and two sons in Jacksonville.