Can electricity, chickens and Indian River coexist?

Indian River power plant seen from Indian River. BY DENNIS FORNEY
November 15, 2013

Two weekends ago, the Delmarva explorer vessel Nellie Lankford motored the rising tide up Indian River on a clear Sunday morning. Halfway up in the southeast, the sun lit yellow and red leaves in gums and oaks and poplars along the northern banks of the river. So much color against a deep blue sky swept clean by a stiff northwest wind. The colors, tall loblolly pines, bald eagles and banks knolling up from the river shore reminded me just how beautiful a body of water Indian River is.

No wonder Native American peoples have held to these parts for thousands of years.

As we eased into the reflections of the tall stacks at the Indian River  power plant, we passed a pair of fishermen casting and retrieving in the channel. A little farther upriver and just offshore from the plant, three more people in a camouflaged john boat worked a trotline for crabs. I didn’t see them dipping very often, but it was late October and the fact they were there with their baited rig struck me as remarkable.

Remarkable also is that by the end of this year, NRG will have taken three out of four generating units offline at the plant. NRG closed the plant’s oldest and dirtiest units - one and two - in 2010 and 2011,  respectively. When Unit 3 closes down in December, the Delmarva Peninsula’s lone coal-burning electric plant will be reduced to one 400-megawatt generating unit. According to sources on the internet, those 400 million watts are enough to provide average power to 400,000 homes at any one time. That’s just about enough to cover all the present homes on the Delmarva Peninsula. Of course Indian River’s power, as is the case with the other power plants in the region, goes onto a huge grid for use wherever it’s needed.

Dave Gaier, communications director for NRG’s eastern region, said NRG has completed more than $350 million worth of improvements to the back end of the Indian River plant. “Those improvements have made Indian River one of the cleanest coal-burning plants in the nation,” he said. While he declined to say how much coal the plant burns each year - “that’s proprietary” - he did say that the coal trained into Indian River comes from central Appalachian coal mines.

“We’re doing everything we said we would in the consent decree we signed with Gov. Markell and Secretary O’Mara,” said Gaier.

In the meantime, Delaware agencies are working with the Allen Harim folks who - upriver from the power plant - want to convert the former Vlasic pickle plant into a chicken processing facility. The big questions, of course, are how will the existing brownfield site be cleaned up, what steps will be taken to ensure that the chicken processing facility doesn’t harm an environment on the mend, and how will traffic to and from the plant be managed so it doesn’t become a negative.

At least from most outward appearances, the Indian River power plant - though certainly not a picturesque waterfall - is settling into a relatively peaceful coexistence with its surrounding environment while still generating significant electricity for a growing region. Burning coal - between particulate matter that still makes it past some of the industry’s most sophisticated scrubbers and the residual fly ash that must be handled - still has its problems. Gaier said if cleaner-burning natural gas pipelines get close by, NRG will definitely take a look at the benefits of a conversion.

As for the Allen Harim chicken plant proposal, the people of the Indian River area will be watching closely. They know there is great economic pressure to make this happen. People need jobs. As Sen. Bob Venables said recently, those objecting to the proposal need to stand in the shoes of those looking to get back to work.

But, it took decades to start reversing serious pollution from Indian River ‘s coal-burning generators and wastewater from other facilities being dumped in the river. Now that’s happening, the people of Indian River don’t want to see the environmental gains erased by the advent of a new industry.

No doubt 21st century technology can address the environmental issues and help sustain the beauty of Indian River, but only if our government representatives demand the proper safeguards and commit themselves to closely monitoring operations as long as the new facility, if approved, remains in production.

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