Prove your humanity

A central Pennsylvania conservation group is declaring a win for water quality and outdoor recreation after reaching a settlement with the owner of a nearby power plant.

Talen Energy, based in Allentown, Pa. and Texas, has pledged to stop burning coal at the Montour Power Plant by the end of 2025 and repower with natural gas.

The transition raised questions of what would happen to the Montour Preserve, a 640-acre nature preserve and recreation area that features Lake Chillisquaque. The lake was built in 1972 to hold water pumped from the Susquehanna River to then be used in the power plant’s cooling towers.

“It’s a huge destination for families. A lot of young people first got introduced to the outdoors on the banks of that lake, or through the nature center, or through educational programs,” said Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper John Zaktansky.

His association pursued the settlement to address any lingering pollution issues after coal is phased out.

Under the agreement, Talen promises to close, drain, and seal off a coal ash waste pit by 2028 and continue groundwater sampling for the next 30 years to make sure contaminants are not escaping.

The company will give $200,000 to the association for clean water programs and additional water sampling.

“There’s just a lot of different things that we’re going to be able to do to help make sure that this ash basin doesn’t impact the local communities and if it does, that we have the red flags in place that we can do something about it,” Zaktansky said.

The preserve will be donated to a nonprofit or local government group along with $1 million for maintenance. An exact date for the donation was not provided.

Zaktansky said keeping the preserve intact will help encourage outdoor recreation and inspire the next generation of environmental stewards.

In a statement, Talen said it has no immediate plans to stop operations at the Montour plant. It added it is important to take steps now to reaffirm its commitment to a responsible, compliant closure of its ash basins and ensure that the Montour Preserve continues to be available to the public.

Talen reached a separate settlement with the Sierra Club in November, in which it set the end date for coal at its Montour plant and other sites and “committed to a strategic repositioning of its power generation fleet.”

Talen is developing one gigawatt of renewable energy and battery storage projects, with its first 100-megawatt solar field sited near the Montour plant in Washingtonville, Pa. It plans to break ground later this year.

Though it applauded the move, the Sierra Club said it would fight the company’s plan to switch the plant to natural gas, saying “There is no place for fracked gas in a clean energy economy.”

In 2018, the Sierra Club and Talen reached an agreement for Brunner Island Power Plant in York County to phase out coal by 2029, in favor of natural gas.

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