Amid angry protest songs, SEPTA board approves Nicetown gas plant, again

For a second time, SEPTA’s board authorized the construction of gas and heat cogeneration gas plant next to Roberts Rail Yard and the Midvale Bus Depot in Nicetown on Thursday.

As SEPTA board member and environmental lawyer Robert Fox began to defend SEPTA’s decision to build the small gas plant, the forty or so environmental activists present broke out into a variant of an old union organizing song, “Which side are you on?

That song was used in the early 20th century as a rallying cry for coal miners—ironic, given the green context in which it was put to use on Thursday. Or maybe not, given that some protesters in the crowd angrily shouted “coal would be better” at SEPTA’s board, in a failed attempt to shame them into voting against the proposed gas plant.

As the protesters sang, SEPTA’s board moved ahead with a vote on the day’s agenda, with the approval of the Nicetown gas plant first on the list. By a voice and hand vote, the board authorized construction, again.

SEPTA had originally approved the natural gas plant back in November. But a lawsuit by some of the environmental groups alleged that notice for that board meeting wasn’t posted ten days in advance, as required by Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act. Without admitting any validity to that allegation, SEPTA made it moot by simply re-voting on Thursday pursuant to proper notice.

SEPTA said the gas plant will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 41 percent, saying that the electricity feeding Philadelphia’s grid comes from a mix of sources that, in toto, are dirtier. SEPTA will also make a number of energy efficiency improvements to its nearby rail yards and depot.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who represents the area where the plant would be built, released a letter in opposition, but did not send a representative from her office to attend the meeting.

The protesters said the estimated emissions declines are too generous, saying that the baseline comparison to a large region that includes Western Pennsylvania is misleading. They also say that the figure doesn’t include the increase in fine particulate matter the plant will generate. While the EPA sets regional guidelines for fine particulate matter, it does not regulate this type of emissions from particular sources. Philadelphia currently meets those fine particulate matter levels, but neighboring Delaware County does not.

SEPTA is building the $26.8 million, 8.6-megawatt combined heat and power facility to power half of its Regional Rail lines. SEPTA is financing the project through the Pennsylvania Guaranteed Energy Savings Act, which encourages efficiency upgrades that pay for themselves over time through cost savings. Noresco, Inc., a Massachusetts-based company, will provide the capital for the project as well as an energy cost saving guarantee.    

The environmentalists wanted Fox to recuse himself from the vote, saying that his legal work representing companies in the natural gas industry presented a conflict of interest. Because Fox does not have any financial interest in Noresco, its bank, or any of the subcontractors it hired to build this plant, SEPTA General Counsel Gino Benedetti said there was no conflict of interest that would require Fox to recuse himself. Fox joined the board in unanimously approving the project.

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