The Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds today received $3.5 million from a federal Clean Water Act penalty assessment related to the Conemaugh Generating Station near Johnstown.
The penalty is to be used to fund restoration and preservation projects in the Conemaugh River Watershed, which is the area affected by the Conemaugh Station's water quality violations.
“It’s with a great sense of responsibility that the Foundation for Pennsylvania’s Watersheds will be able to address some of the ‘worst of the worst’ polluting sites and preserve ‘the best of the best’ in the Conemaugh Watershed through the use of this settlement monies,” stated John Dawes, Executive Director of the Foundation for Pennsylvania’s Watersheds.
GenOn Northeast Management Company, a subsidiary of GenOn Energy, Inc., and owner of Conemaugh, must pay a total of $3.75 million in penalties as a result of a legal action brought by PennEnvironment, the Sierra Club and several of their local members.
The penalty is the largest ever imposed in Pennsylvania history against a water polluter under the federal Clean Water Act's citizen enforcement provisions.
The settlement agreement reached by the plaintiff groups and the company is embodied in a proposed consent decree, which was filed in federal court in Pittsburgh today and awaits approval by United States Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell.
In March, Judge Mitchell ruled that GenOn had committed 8,684 violations of the federal Clean Water Act by discharging illegal levels of five different pollutants—some of them toxic—into the Conemaugh River since 2005. Judge Mitchell had scheduled a June 1 trial to determine how much to penalize the company for its violations and how to bring the power plant into compliance with the law.
Under the terms of the consent decree filed in court Monday, GenOn has agreed to achieve compliance with its permit limits in a timely fashion and to pay heavy, automatic penalties for any future permit violations. In addition, GenOn must perform tests to gauge the toxicity of its wastewater discharges and provide that information to the Department of Environmental Protection.
In 2007, the environmental groups alleged that GenOn had been in continuous violation of its Clean Water Act discharge permit, discharging more than three million gallons of wastewater per day containing elevated levels of selenium, manganese, aluminum, boron, and iron into the Conemaugh River. The limits in GenOn’s permit were set by the DEP specifically to protect against degraded conditions in the river, and to help restore the river to health. On occasion, the company has exceeded its permitted pollution limits by over 1,000 percent, or more than ten times allowable levels.
In 2004, DEP entered into an agreement with the company not to enforce the pollution limits at issue in this case until 2011 or later—and DEP has already extended part of that agreement until 2012. In the citizen groups’ lawsuit, however, the federal court ruled on three separate occasions that this “side agreement” with DEP does not shield GenOn from its obligation to comply with federal law or with the company’s Clean Water Act permit.
“While this historic penalty will send a strong message to other companies in Pennsylvania and throughout the region, it is equally important that the company is now committed, at long last, to complying with its legal discharge limits and to reducing its pollution of the Conemaugh River,” stated PennEnvironment Director David Masur. “This was a David and Goliath-style fight—and the ‘Davids’ were able to deliver a critical victory to the people of Pennsylvania.”
“The Clean Water Act allows citizens to take legal action against chronic polluters when state and federal officials are unable—or unwilling—to protect water quality,” said Thomas Au, the Conservation Chair of the Pennsylvania Chapter of Sierra Club. “This is a significant victory for the people who live in the Conemaugh River watershed.”