Riverkeeper talks Talen & Montour Preserve agreement, preps for next steps in water quality, preserve work
Last March, the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association received a call from a much larger environmental group about a settlement discussion involving Talen Energy’s Montour power plant.
They wanted to bring a local group into the process – a group with a vested interest in the local communities and natural resources of the region.
Local ties and connections were not a problem for me, personally. I grew up on a small farm less than 10 miles from the plant. Classmates and close friends live in the nearby towns of Washingtonville and Exchange. My first real job was watering plants and shading mums at what was then called Bryfogles Greenhouse on a property adjacent to the coal-burning facility. My family and Scout troop savored all the natural treasures of the nearby Montour Preserve and 165-acre Lake Chillisquaque via camping, fishing and fossil exploration trips. I even competed in a state Envirothon hosted at the preserve. The facility was woven into the fabric of my youth.
An environmental engineering consulting firm's report showed a number of pollution concerns reported by Talen to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the CCR (Coal Combustion Residuals) rule. The group that contacted me wanted to get Talen to commit to a specific date when coal burning would cease.
As discussions evolved into negotiations over the past year, it became clear that Talen would be transitioning the plant to another source of energy. Our main concern – as the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association – was the potential waterway contamination concerns outlined in the report and the impacts they'd have both locally and downstream heading into the Susquehanna River.
Many of the reported issues involved the 155-acre Ash Basin 1 (AB1). This unlined pit stores ash leftover from the coal burning process. According to reports, part of this pit is submerged in groundwater, so contaminants could leach into the water table. Numbers reported to the EPA indicated elevated groundwater sample levels of cobalt, lithium and sulfates. Other reports suggested increases in boron, chloride, calcium and arsenic. Some of these elements can be found naturally in the local ground, but all also can be affiliated with coal ash. Groundwater generally moves very slowly, but there is potential over time that contamination could migrate to nearby wells and streams.
Ideally, the coal ash pit would have a liner – some sort of barrier that would stop any potential contaminants from seeping into the water table below the pit. However, costs to fully excavate such a large pit and move all the waste to a properly lined disposal site are astronomical.
The situation put me, personally, in a challenging position. My mantra since taking over as Riverkeeper has been to do all that’s realistically possible to protect and promote our river-based resources. Long-term water quality was potentially at stake. Unfortunately, due to various confidentiality concerns, I was unable to loop in local leaders until after things were finalized.
Meanwhile, Talen – and PPL before it – has been beneficial for local communities, providing careers that have sustained families, boosted the region’s economy and sparked the creation of the Montour Preserve. I know people who work for the company. I have appreciated Talen’s willingness to work with county officials and the Montour Area Recreation Commission (MARC) to maintain the Montour Preserve, including the lake, nature and environmental education center, system of trails, picnic pavilions and fossil pit.
Rather than paint the company in an unfavorable light, we simply wanted to make sure that local families and aquatic ecosystems were protected from any potential harm from the ash basin, while gaining some assurances in stability for the Montour Preserve moving forward.
There were many sleepless nights as negotiations intensified throughout September and October. At the end of all this, I needed to be able to walk down the streets of Washingtonville and Exchange, look people in the eye and assure them we did all that we could to get the best possible outcome.
Thankfully, the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association has an extremely dedicated Board of Directors who made time for numerous impromptu evening discussions via Zoom and provided invaluable support each step of the way. We also brought in the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) which helped navigate the legal aspects of the situation and secure the best possible outcomes. We would not have achieved this agreement without EIP’s guidance. I was never alone in this process – we all worked together as a team to best represent the region.
Ultimately, we negotiated additional measures that will provide much better testing and data for potential future contamination. A new background well will be drilled to help provide the most accurate readings. We will be sampling two nearby creeks for the next three decades to monitor for any contaminants in surface water that flows through local streams and eventually to the Susquehanna River. We will also be doing some free residential well sampling at specific sites and arranging for water treatment systems where necessary. Other protections built into this deal will serve the nearby communities – and the Susquehanna River – for years to come.
On top of all that, this agreement allows us to insure the future of the Montour Preserve as an environmental, educational and recreational hub for future generations. We are excited to work with local officials and start the process of next steps necessary to allow for a smooth transition of ownership.
While the announcement of this deal is a culmination of nearly a year’s worth of work, it truly is only a beginning for us as we bring to life the various protections and benefits achieved for the region. There is quite a bit yet to do – not only in terms of water monitoring, but also in working collaboratively with local officials to iron out wrinkles and find realistic solutions for the long-term ownership of the Montour Preserve.
We look forward to working with everyone connected to the area, and encourage you to reach out with any questions or feedback. We are available via email at email@example.com or phone (570-768-6300).
Editor's note: This column is not intended for republication or production beyond its scope as a blog post update on this agreement situation. Contact us with any questions concerning this at firstname.lastname@example.org
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John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.