In 2016, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) proposed a $27 million project to build a combined heating and power plant in Nicetown, Philadelphia, PA. The plant's generator burns fracked natural gas that produces 8,800-kilowatts of energy to power 70% of the rail service in Northern Philadelphia and the Midvale bus depot [2,3]. Switching this energy source to the new facility is part of SEPTA’s energy action plan, a sustainability initiative started in 2012. The city of Philadelphia paid for the construction from a grant - Pennsylvania’s Guaranteed Energy Savings Act (GESA) - that was given to SEPTA for construction. GESA finances city projects that reduce energy usage and overall utility spending. SEPTA’s generator is scheduled to run for 20 years. The site resides on the same premises of their Midvale Bus Facility, a depot that holds/stages up to 300 buses a day .
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) is a state-funded public transit authority that is responsible for operating transportation throughout Philadelphia and four surrounding counties (Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery). It is the sixth largest transit system in the United States, with an average weekly ridership of around one million people . Commuters from nearby counties rely upon the transit system for transportation in and out of the city for work, as well as inner-city travel. The company teamed up with NORESCO, an energy service industry, to build the plant in Nicetown.
The community in which the plant was proposed to be built in is Nicetown, Pennsylvania, a neighborhood located in Northern Philadelphia. Consistently paired with the nearby neighborhood of Tioga, the area is often called Nicetown-Tioga. The population is over 85% African American, and has a poverty rate of 42% . The neighborhood is plagued with poor air quality due to its location near bus depots and major highways. Pennsylvania’s criteria for an Environmental Justice community is “any census tract where 20 percent or more individuals live in poverty, and/or 30 percent or more of the population is minority” . According to these standards, Nicetown qualifies as an environmental justice community, and the effects of the burning of natural gas are felt by this EJ community.
When SEPTA proposed its power plant in 2016, there was significant pushback from the local community and neighborhood organizations. Nicetown already has a significantly higher air pollution rate than other parts of the city due to the exhaust from the Midvale Bus Depot. A report from the EPA states Nicetown has up to 75% more fine particle pollution and 95% more diesel exhaust when compared to other neighborhoods around the country . This level of air pollution comes before the opening of the natural gas plant, which would emit even more pollutants into the area. Philadelphia conducted a 2019 study on the health of various communities inside of the city. They conducted a health outcomes ranking with influencing factors being length and quality of life, in which Nicetown-Tioga ranked 45/46, with the second lowest health outcome . The location of the proposed plant was a concern of many residents of the area. Around 37,000 people live within a mile of the facility, making them vulnerable to direct pollutants that would be expelled from the plant . Many residents are also worried about the close proximity that the generator would have to local schools and parks. An environmental consultant testified at a hearing for the proposed plant that the generator would emit pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide . Evidence from various studies on fuel-fired gas plants and their effect they have on human health are clear. Exposure to pollution from plants increase risks of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases . From this data, there is a direct correlation between the operation of a methane fueled power plant and the health and safety of nearby residents.
Local community organizations and activists have been prominent in opposing the construction of the plant. The most active is 350Philadelphia, a climate crisis organization that advocates for a sustainable future through advocacy, education, and protests. The Philadelphia chapter is part of a bigger organization, 350.org, an international climate advocacy group promoting a complete transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. One of the major values 350 promotes is climate and environmental justice and they work regularly to address these issues . 350Philadelphia was at the forefront of the fight against SEPTA’s natural gas plant since the beginning of the proposal. They launched the "Fossil Free SEPTA Campaign" against the plant, stating that the project would release toxic air pollution into the neighborhood, waste tax-payer money, and exacerbate climate change . This campaign garnered the support of over 50 community organizations in Philadelphia who signed a petition to stop the construction of the plant. 350Philadelphia tried to push SEPTA to move completely to renewable energy, an option they believed better fitting for the company, environment, and community. The organization firmly supports wind and solar projects to be built instead of a fracked natural gas plant. The Fossil Free SEPTA campaign was temporarily suspended in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns and the financial status of SEPTA. Despite the pause in their campaign, 350Philadelphia still promotes a greener future for the city with renewable energy.
Soon after their initial plant proposal, SEPTA’s board voted to continue with the project. Following the board’s decision, a lawsuit was filed by 350Philadelphia and three Nicetown residents against SEPTA. They claimed SEPTA violated the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, which required their planned board meetings to be posted to the public ten days in advance . In response, SEPTA made another meeting to vote on the gas plant’s construction and gave the community a ten-day notice. Following this, SEPTA was granted an air permit from Philadelphia Air Management Services (AMS) that allowed the construction of the natural-gas plant to begin on November 29, 2017. This government organization advises on and protects air quality in Philadelphia. AMS defended their decision against backlash from local organizations by stating the pollutants from this plant would follow federal, state, and city emission requirements. Protestors pointed out Pennsylvania’s state Constitution which recognizes the right to clean air and water: Article I, Section 27 of the Constitution states “The people have a right to clean air [and] pure water” . While many community activists insisted the constitution was being violated, that cry was ignored by government officials . Despite several appeals made by 350Philadelphia and other local organizations, construction began, and the natural gas plant’s construction was finished early 2019, followed by months of testing, and finally, operation .
Fracking, especially in Pennsylvania, has been a highly contested issue amongst residents of the state. It is the nation’s second largest producer of natural gas and third largest supplier of energy to other states . Pennsylvania also consumes a significantly high amount of natural gas, with a 2018 estimate by the U.S. Energy Information administration placing it around 1,513.2 trillion BTU . This ease of production and consumption of natural gas comes from the state’s consistent access to the Marcellus Shale. Pennsylvania reached a record amount of natural gas drilled in 2019, over 6.8 trillion cubic feet was extracted . Despite the excess volume of natural gas produced and consumed, there is still pushback against fracking in the state. While cleaner than coal and petroleum, natural gas is still a fossil fuel that contributes to global climate change. Pennsylvania’s fracking industry has proved to be a flawed system through various studies conducted by the state. In June of 2020, the 43rd statewide Grand Jury of Pennsylvania found state government agencies had failed to protect its citizens from the dangers of fracking operations. The jury found two major fracking companies to be violating environmental law and placing nearby residents in harm’s way . The report made by the Grand Jury discussed the failures of the Department of Environmental Protection to protect residents from fracking side effects such as contaminated well water, livestock illnesses, and air pollution . Occurrences like these are what makes fracking a controversial issue in Pennsylvania, and many residents fear that large companies take advantage of the land they use. Opponents of the SEPTA natural gas plant in Nicetown cite examples like this as to why the fossil fuels should not be suppported. The dangers of burning natural gas not only affect Nicetown residents, but also the state residents who live near the fracking wells.
Despite the opposition to the SEPTA natural gas generator, the plant is in operation (as of November 2020). 350Philadelphia, the most prominent opponent to the plant, has suspended its Fossil Free SEPTA campaign. A local group, Neighbors Against the Gas Plants, has filed a lawsuit against Philadelphia, challenging the air permit they passed for the project. This organization is a grassroots volunteer group that mainly focuses on shutting down the newly built plant. The majority of their members live in the Nicetown-Tioga area and are worried about their health and air quality. SEPTA continues to run their natural gas plant in Nicetown despite community opposition and protests by nearby residents.