Phoenix Energy Center (aka Highlands Power Plant) (Holland Township)

Grassroots opposition to this project is lead by the Highlands Coalition and the Musconetcong Water­shed Association.

The applicant, Phoenix Energy Center, is seeking to build a 663 MW power plant on the site of a former paper mill on the Musconetcong, one of the few riv­ers in the state classified as a Category 1 (C1) stream, the designation given to the most pristine waterways. The gas for the power plant would come through Eliz­abethtown and PennEast. Empower NJ has not been able to find any evidence that any New Jersey utility or PJM Interconnect has indicated there is demand for this project. This unnecessary gas plant could be used as a justification by PennEast to build its unnec­essary pipeline.

The project is located in the Highlands Preservation Area, which is regulated to prohibit major industrial de­velopments such as power plants. In order to overcome this obstacle Phoenix Energy submitted a Highland Applicability Determination application to the state Department of Environmental Protection in April 2018 requesting approval of the redevelopment exemption from the Highlands Rules.

Under the Murphy Administration, the Highlands Coun­cil, with pro-development commissioners installed by Governor Christie still in place, ruled it qualified for exemption #4 (“reconstruction for any reason of any building or structure within 125 percent of the footprint of a lawfully existing impervious surface in existence on August 10, 2004”). At the same time, however, the DEP found the project is inconsistent with the Upper Delaware Water Quality Management Plan, a verdict that means the agency cannot issue any permits for the plant until and unless the applicant applies and amends the area wide plan. The Sierra Club argued that the rationale behind the Highlands exemption provision was to al­low small developments that benefit the region without threatening the ecosystem and that the whole purpose of passing the Highlands Act. The New Jersey Highlands Coalition argued the more significant action taken by the state was to rule the project inconsistent with the WQMP, a tool DEP uses to protect water quality in the state.

Water quality issues are crucial in the Highlands, which provides drinking water to 6 million people in New Jersey. The Musconetcong River is also widely regarded as the state’s finest trout stream. Upstream of the site, the Musconetcong is a designated National Wild and Scenic River, and downstream communities of Holland and Pohatcong Townships have passed resolutions in support of 4.3 miles of the Musconetcong being desig­nated a National Wild and Scenic River. This section of the Musconetcong River has been the focus of recent ecological restoration efforts utilizing approximately $4 million in public funds that have improved water qual­ity, restored migratory fish habitat, and increased recre­ational access for boating and fishing.

This plant is proposed to utilize approximately 5.5 mil­lion gallons a day of groundwater and surface water from the Musconetcong River to provide cooling water for the plant to be discharged to the Musconetcong Riv­er. The Musconetcong River is classified by the NJ De­partment of Environmental Protection for Trout Main­tenance, and requires temperatures not to exceed 21 degrees centigrade, which will be jeopardized by the water from the power plant.

The NJ Department of Environmental Protection has designated this section of the Musconetcong River as a Category 1 water body to prevent water quality degrada­tion, and maintain water quality for ecological restora­tion, in accordance with federal Clean Water Act rules. The Highlands Council indicates the site is located in a Carbonate Rock Area, and that Carbonate Rock can have geological properties that facilitate transfer of groundwater to surface waters, and surface waters to ground waters, through which surface water levels can be decreased through withdrawals from their underly­ing groundwater aquifers. The NJ Highlands Council has also identified the site as being located in an area with a pre-existing water quantity deficit. The proposed site currently has a permitted use of approximately 550,000 gallons a day of groundwater and no permitted surface water withdrawals or discharges, while the proposed water discharge of approximately 1.5 million gallons a day represents approximately 1% of the Musconetcong River’s average flow.

The area is already a non-attainment area for 8-hour Ozone levels as determined by the U.S. Environmen­tal Protection Agency since 2004, which threatens the respiration of vulnerable populations, including the elderly and children, and which can increase the risk of asthma, and the American Lung Association graded Hunterdon County’s Air Quality as “F” in its 2017 What is the State of Your Air? Report.

It is estimated that this plant will emit about 1.93 MMt of CO2 per year and will leak/emit about 500 tons of methane annually. This will result in total GHG emis­sions of 1.98 MMt of CO2e. (These estimates are based on a comparison with the proposed Meadowlands pow­er plant as no information on the specific gas power technology to be used by Phoenix has been found.)

Phoenix Energy Center has not yet applied to the NJDEP for any permits.

The Murphy Administration can stop this plant by us­ing its authority to regulate and limit GHGs and end the practice of allowing applicants to purchase ozone cred­its. It may also be able to stop this plant by not upgrad­ing the DEP permitting rules as described above.