SEPTA approves natural gas power plant

Donates Avizienis walks by the substation through which power provided by Peco would be replaced by electricity produced from a proposed power plant near SEPTA's Wayne Junction station.

Amid roars of disapproval, SEPTA's board on Thursday approved a natural gas power plant to be built near Philadelphia's Wayne Junction Station.

Their voices inaudible over shouting, all 11 board members at the meeting showed their hands to approve the $26.8 million project.

"No vote! No vote!" about 50 members of the climate-change campaign 350 Philadelphia shouted as the board walked out of the room.

The group, which opposes the environmental impact of the natural gas industry, had hoped to persuade SEPTA to delay the vote. For almost half an hour speakers from the organization contested SEPTA's plans and carried letters from three Philadelphia City Council members supporting a delay in voting. 

"The gas industry wants to demonstrate there is a demand for additional gas," said Peter Winslow, one of 350 Philadelphia's leaders. "The real game here is that by doing a project that requires the use of gas, this is a justification for building additional pipeline capacity to feed Philadelphia."

SEPTA board members have said there has been no political pressure to use natural gas brought to bear on them.

The 8.8-megawatt plant was proposed more than a year ago as a way to give the authority independence from PECO blackouts for the northern portion of its Regional Rail without costing additional money. Noresco LLC has been tapped to design the plant. Two piston-engine generators would be housed in a 40-by-105-foot corrugated-steel building between the Roberts Avenue Rail Yard and the Midvale Bus Depot. Roosevelt Boulevard is to the northwest of the site and the CSX freight lines to the southeast, and the nearest homes are 1,000 feet away. 

Opponents to the plan have made much of the potential damage to air quality the plant could cause, saying it could worsen cases of asthma for children in the neighborhood. Natural gas burns more cleanly than other fuels, and a preliminary meeting with the city's Air Management Services office didn't raise any red flags. SEPTA must perform an air-quality test before construction can move forward.

During Thursday's meeting, one board member, Robert Fox of Montgomery County, strongly disputed the argument that the plant itself was bad for the environment. There would be virtually no detectable contaminants at ground level, he said, and the project would lead to a 41 percent reduction of greenhouse gases.

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion," Fox said. "No one is entitled to their own facts."

That didn't end the debate, though, with members of the opposition saying after the meeting that current air-quality standards don't take into account fine-particulate matter the plant could create. Opponents also argued SEPTA wasn't transparent about its plans and didn't consider alternative ideas. Fox said both were untrue, citing numerous public meetings held along with the regular monthly board meetings, where 350 Philadelphia members have been a fixture for months, and plans for wind- and solar-power generation that weren't sufficient for SEPTA's needs.

Members of 350 Philadelphia intended to challenge SEPTA's vote in court, Winslow said. He didn't believe SEPTA provided enough public notification of the agenda for Thursday's meeting.

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