Western Connecticut Clean Air Action Pushes Back

Wendy Murphy

Last Spring several conservation organizations and individuals in Connecticut’s rural Northwest corner became aware, admittedly late in the game, of Cricket Valley Energy Center (CVEC). This is a $1.6 billion, massive natural-gas electrical generation facility beginning construction just across the Connecticut/New York state line in Dover Plains, NY. Gathering volunteers from the seven towns closest to the site (within 4-18 miles), we formed the Western Connecticut Clean Air Action task force (WCCAA). Realizing that the rest of the public knew virtually nothing about CVEC either, we held several community meetings, presented the facts as we knew them and described the potential consequences to public health and the environment. Almost immediately we had a constituency.

The task force was surprised and dismayed to find that our own Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), presumably the agency responsible for protecting ambient air quality in our state, had declined to participate in the multi-year licensing process that preceded CVEC's start-up. We learned further that DEEP had no legal standing in deciding how the plant would be designed or operated. By DEEP's own description, years of severe state budget cuts have left the agency underfunded and understaffed; its directors felt they had no choice but to rely on their New York State colleagues to do the right thing. WCCAA was sympathetic with their reasoning, but not comforted.  

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Photo: Construction site of CVEC on Route 22 in Dover, NY

Photo credit: Wendy Murphy

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Photo: A map showing the location of the power plant. The close proximity of the power plant to Connecticut will result in the power plant’s exhaust air crossing the state border.

We saw that when CVEC opens in 2020, residents of the towns directly downwind of CVEC's three 282 foot high smokestacks would be the first to breathe the exhaust plumes of volatile organic compounds, gases and particulates that are forecast to flow in our direction on the prevailing winds; no one in Connecticut would fully escape them. As CVEC is located in a "nonattainment" area of New York, it is permitted to produce up to 115% of standard EPA-approved emissions through the purchase of cap and trade credits. Reportedly that translates annually to as much as 200 tons of nitrogen oxides, over 100 tons of large and small particulates, and over 60 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  What could WCCAA do to prevent such an onslaught, if it were to happen, at this late date?

We decided that our best strategy was to set up an evidence-based, data-driven monitoring system by which we could record our current ambient air quality; we could then compare it in a year or more with our air quality when CVEC is up and running.  We were advised by air quality experts that the costs of installing and metering sophisticated EPA-acceptable monitoring was extremely high, but that new, more affordable instruments made by Aeroqual of New Zealand had recently come on the market and they were sufficiently sensitive to detect with actionable certainty whether we did indeed have increased pollutants coming from CVEC's point source. If degradation was discovered we could then take the data to the big guns of the federal EPA as well as to Connecticut’s DEEP, Attorney General and Department of Public Health who would have no choice but to take on New York and CVEC, we hoped.  

Nine months have passed since those first steps. Federal protections of air quality have grown worse. But WCCAA has gained the support of multiple local and regional land trusts, conservation commissions, several private schools, seven Boards of Selectmen, the CT American Lung Association, and the Housatonic Valley Association. With their help we have raised close to $100,000 locally to allow us to set up a monitoring network in our seven towns consisting of a central instrument located at Kent School and seven satellite stations. We also have Senate Bill, SB 585 "An Act Concerning Air Quality Monitoring in Towns Near the Cricket Valley Energy Center," working its way through the Connecticut Legislature at this very moment.   

Where all this work will take us is unknown, of course, but we are ready to find out. At the very least our citizens have developed a new appreciation for the importance of good air quality, and we have shown our government that it matters to us.

Wendy Murphy is a Sierra Club member and the president of the WCCAA task force.