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The Sierra Club is threatening to sue the owners of a coal-fired power plant near Pittsburgh for releasing water that is too hot into the Allegheny River.

The group sent a Clean Water Act 60-day “Notice of Intent” to sue letter to the plant’s owners. It warned of legal action if the plant doesn’t meet requirements under its pollution discharge permits.

The Cheswick plant uses steam from its coal-fired boilers to create electricity. Under the terms of a clean water permit, the plant is allowed to release that water into the Allegheny River, but it’s not allowed to raise the river’s water temperature more than two degrees Fahrenheit. 

A series of tests done by the plant in 2012 found it had raised the river’s temperature much higher than that. The tests revealed the plant discharge was heating the river by 18 degrees Fahrenheit in one case, and the plume of hot water was detected more than a mile downstream. 

Higher water temperatures can be bad for some fish species because it lowers oxygen levels. 

The Sierra Club conducted its own survey this month and found the river temperature was increased by seven degrees Fahrenheit near the plant in some cases, said the Sierra Club’s Patrick Grenter. 

The Cheswick plant is just dumping superheated water into the Allegheny River every single time they operate,” Grenter said.

We’re seeing temperatures up to 18 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the water than it should be. This has huge impacts.”

Grenter says other plants use cooling towers to lower the temperature of their water before releasing it. 

Cheswick is the only coal plant left in Pennsylvania without methods to control this pollution,” Grenter said. 

Grenter said the Sierra Club found out that Cheswick was violating its “thermal pollution” requirements while researching a different water permit. 

What we want is to stop the harm of the Allegheny River and to force this coal plant to internalize the costs of their own pollution,” Grenter said. 

GenOn, the plant’s owner, didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection declined comment. The plant has 60 days to respond to the letter. 

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.