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Cracker would face air permit 'challenges,' DEP says

Chip Ellis
DEP air quality engineer Joe Kessler shows a map indicating areas of West Virginia where pollution problems could make it challenging for a natural gas cracker plant to obtain permits.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lingering pollution problems in key parts of West Virginia could eventually pose problems for any company that decides it wants to build a natural gas "cracker" facility in the state, a government regulator and an industry consultant agreed Wednesday.

Parts of the Kanawha Valley, the Northern Panhandle and Wood County all remain listed as not meeting certain federal air quality standards, a designation that would require tougher emission controls for any major pollution source like a cracker facility.

The designation means any cracker locating in those areas would also be forced to find existing pollution sources that would agree to cut emissions as "offsets" for the new facility.

"It would present challenges," said Joe Kessler, an engineer with the state Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Air Quality.

Kessler discussed the issue Wednesday as part of a conference the West Virginia Manufacturers Association sponsored to promote the prospect of landing a cracker plant and "downstream" facilities that would turn natural gas wastes into marketable products.

West Virginia political leaders and business boosters continue to push the idea, despite last week's announcement that Shell Chemical had picked a site in western Pennsylvania for further study as a potential cracker plant location.

Kessler said major pollution sources must generally be equipped with the "best available control technology," or BACT, to obtain air emissions permits under the federal Clean Air Act and state regulations.

To locate in areas that don't meet current federal air quality standards, Kessler said, companies would have to install tougher pollution controls to meet the "lowest achievable emissions rate," or LAER.

Under federal law, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets National Ambient Air Quality Standards at a level meant to protect public health. States then have authority to write their own plans for how to meet those standards, usually through a mix of pollution controls for different sorts of industrial and other activities.

When states don't reduce air pollution enough to meet federal standards, those areas are listed as being in "non-attainment," and face various possible sanctions, including tougher permit requirements for new businesses.

Kessler did not suggest that Shell picked Beaver County, Pa., over West Virginia for its cracker because of air pollution restrictions.

The area around Pittsburgh is also listed as not attaining several air quality standards, and Kessler said tougher new EPA rules have put many communities around the country in a similar position.

Kessler said DEP officials are hoping that new pollution data shows air quality has improved enough for some of West Virginia's non-attainment areas to be taken off that list, but it's not clear how long such decisions will take.

"There are a lot of things that go into that," Kessler said. "We're not sure how it's going to turn out."

But until that decision is made, industry consultant Eli McCoy, a former DEP director, said he would advise any clients looking to build a cracker plant not to consider locating in an area listed as "non-attainment."

"My first advice would be to try to avoid those areas if you can," McCoy said. "It doesn't make it impossible [to get a permit], but it makes your life more difficult."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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