FLAGPOLE.COM ∙ OCTOBER 14, 2009
he era of environmental conscious-ness has placed coal in an unflat-tering light. It’s dirty, it makesyou sick, and it’s hell to get to.But burning coal remains the nation’s pri-mary source of electricity and a big business,providing economic fuel for businessmenand common folk alike. Thus, nowadays, thebuilding of a coal plant has become a gut-wrenching drama full of inflamed emotions,unfounded accusations and allegations of cor-ruption. But it also raises some serious ques-tions about what our priorities really are. Justask the people of Sandersville, GA.On Aug. 25, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) issued draft per-mits to a coal-fired power plant proposedto be built roughly six miles northeast of Sandersville. Named after the county thatcalls Sandersville its seat, Plant Washington’sconstruction is estimated to cost a shadeover two billion dollars and to claim 1,200acres of land. In January 2008, a consortiumof five Georgia electric membership coop-eratives (EMCs)—Cobb EMC, Central GeorgiaEMC, Snapping Shoals EMC, Upson EMC andWashington EMC—formed a limited liabilitycompany called “Power4Georgians” and, nearlysimultaneously, applied for Plant Washington’spermits. By granting these draft permits,Georgia EPD effectively gave its blessing toPower4Georgians’ development plans, leavingonly two hurdles on the road to the final per-mits: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)approval and public opinion. Although EPDofficials warn that their decision to approvethe plant is “not a popularity contest,” statelaw requires the agency to listen to, recordand evaluate public sentiment. And with timerunning out—acceptance of input ends onOct. 27—more and more Georgians are voicingtheir feelings on the plant.
Safe for the environment?
The most visible resistance to PlantWashington and Power4Georgians comes fromenvironmental activists. On one issue, how-ever, the two sides agree: Georgians are indanger.In the future, Power4Georgians warns,Georgia citizens will choose between limitedelectric supply (and, presumably, blackouts)and reliable, privatized electric supply fromwholesalers (presumably at exorbitant prices).Plant Washington offers a third option: suf-ficient energy at affordable prices.Opponents charge that if the new plant isbuilt, the ensuing emissions will not only con-tribute to a growing global warming problem,but also endanger the health and livelihoodsof people both in the immediate vicinity of the plant and around the state.To marshal opposition to the plant, TheSouthern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) hasorganized “citizen hearings” around the state,the transcripts of which they have submittedto the EPD. Groups like SACE and their citizencounterparts have pointed out that annually,Plant Washington could emit up to 6.2 mil-lion tons of CO2 and 106 pounds of mercury,along with other unsavory substances likenitrous oxide, sulfur oxides, carbon monoxideand particulate matter. “Georgia is jam-packedwith coal plants. We don’t need another,”says Rebecca Van Damm, an organizer withthe Southern Energy Network. Van Damm isorganizing opponents of the plant to attendan EPD public forum in Sandersville on Oct.20, at which they can voice their opinions onpublic record. (Comments may also be emailedto firstname.lastname@example.org.)Plant Washington, if constructed, will bethe eighth major coal plant in the state andthe first coal-fired facility built in Georgiasince 1989, when Plant Scherer’s fourth unitbecame operational. Existing plants are old,reminds Power4Georgians spokesman DeanAlford, and with state-of-the-art technology,Plant Washington will emit, “megawatt formegawatt,” only a third of what archaic plantslike Scherer and Wansley belch out daily. AndAlford is quick to point out that the plantwill burn coal from the Powder River Basin inWyoming and the Illinois Basin, which will notbe mined using the “mountaintop removal”method that has gained almost unanimousenmity amongst Americans in recent years.Regarding opposition to the plant, Alford says,“You’ve got some people that are opposed tocoal no matter what happens.”The emission of mercury, a known neuro-toxin, has been the linchpin of the environ-mental argument against Plant Washington.An inevitable byproduct of burning coal,airborne mercury eventually settles into thesurrounding soil and water and, through aprocess known as bioaccumulation, gradu-ally builds up in the tissue of living organ-isms. Most human exposure to mercury comesthrough eating contaminated fish. After theEPA failed to enforce a nationwide mercurystandard, Georgia passed its own mercuryrule in 2007, imposing mercury emissionslimits on plants with capacities larger than150 megawatts. “Georgia actually has someof the strongest mercury emissions rules inthe nation,” says Dr. Michael Chang, an atmo-spheric scientist at Georgia Tech. Becausemercury, like other heavy metals, “doesn’tgo away,” Dr. Chang says, the vast majorityof mercury in Georgia streams and rivers is“legacy mercury,” pumped with abandon fromsmokestacks before the age of regulation.Plant Washington’s contribution to mercurylevels, then, may even be negligible: “It’s abig ocean of mercury out there,” Chang says,“and the amount that you’re putting in is cup-fuls at a time.”Another concern to some Georgians is theplant’s effect on groundwater. When operat-ing at full capacity, Plant Washington will require daily 16 million gallons of water, mostof which will come from the Oconee River. Butwhen river levels are low, the plant will relyon a series of wells to draw water from theground. EPD officials estimate that this will be necessary for five to six months out a five-year period. The EPD’s state geologist, JimKennedy, says that the plant’s 15 wells wouldbe spread out along a 20-mile line to mini-mize impact to the aquifer.No matter what the level of resistance fromenvironmental groups, Power4Georgians car-ries quite the trump card: Plant Washington,as planned and as reviewed by the GeorgiaEPD, will meet all existing environmental rules and standards. “These are the absolutemost stringent limits that have ever been pro-posed for any power plant ever in the UnitedStates,” said Jac Capp, chief of the EPD’s AirProtection Branch, at a recent question-and-answer session in Sandersville regarding theplant. (Currently, power plants are held to noemissions standard regarding CO2, but theObama administration is expected to imposeone.) The underlying question remains: Areenvironmentalists more upset with PlantWashington or with the regulations that will likely allow Plant Washington to exist? MidgeSweet, coordinator of Georgians for SmartEnergy, is frank about her feelings toward theEPD: “I think we’re beginning to see that EPDis not a protection division, but a permittingdivision.”
The basic gist of Power4Georgians’ case forPlant Washington is this: as Georgia grows,so must its power supply. Georgia Powerand the Oglethorpe Power Corporation—thelargest supply cooperative in the UnitedStates—satisfy a sizable share of Georgia’spower needs, but not all of them. The remain-der is filled by wholesale power supplierswho sell power to the state’s various EMCs.According to Power4Georgians, many contractswith these suppliers are set to expire in 2013.(If approved, Plant Washington’s construc-tion will take from four to five years.) Newcontracts with these suppliers, even if avail-able, will significantly raise electricity prices,perhaps leading to energy crises like 2008’sgas price spike. Consumers enjoy little agencyin this troubling scenario, a residual from the“Enron era,” when power suppliers were muchmore plentiful, and, therefore, electricity wasmuch cheaper. Now, fewer companies hold thereins.“Electric rates are going to go up, period.The question is how much,” says Alford, whopromises that power generated from EMC-controlled Plant Washington will be friendlierto the average Georgian’s wallet. “If we don’tdo everything we can to keep the costs of energy controlled,” he adds, “we’re going toimpoverish the citizens of the state.”Despite Power4Georgia’s seeminglyclear plan, many economic uncertaintiescontinue to plague the project. Originally,Power4Georgians consisted of 10 EMCs, but inMay of this year, four of them—Jackson EMC,Excelsior EMC, Diverse Power and GreystonePower—pulled out of the consortium, eachciting an unpredictable regulatory environ-ment in Washington. (Because Pataula EMChas been absorbed by Cobb EMC, this articlerefers to five remaining EMCs rather than six.)Congress, it seems, will soon pass climate leg-islation; whether it takes the form of cap-and-trade, diversified energy portfolios or simplemonetary penalties, energy providers will soonpay to pollute.“Coal has been a very economical source of energy, but it may not continue to be,” saysBonnie Jones, director of communicationsfor Jackson EMC. In recent years, her EMC’sgrowth has slowed considerably, and JacksonEMC has experienced “negative growth” sofar this year. Phone calls to the three otherwithdrawn EMCs yielded similar news: theirgrowth, too, is slowing to a crawl. In contrast,Power4Georgians’ graphs and projections showconsumer demand as a line traveling steadilyupwards. (Calls to the remaining members of Power4Georgians, with the exception of UpsonEMC, either went unreturned or were redi-rected to Dean Alford.)Moreover, state-sponsored conservationmeasures could slow demand for new powergeneration facilities. A seminal Georgia Techpaper, “Meta-Review of Efficiency Potential Studies and their Implications for the South,”concludes that “full deployment of energy-efficient technologies… would entirely offsetthe need to expand electric generation capac-ity in the South through the year 2020.” Acompilation of numerous reports, the paper—co-authored by Dr. Marilyn Brown, who, asa member of an intergovernmental climatechange panel, shared the 2007 Nobel PeacePrize with Al Gore—asserts that “with vigor-ous policies, it is possible to reduce energyconsumption in the South by one percent peryear, which would more than eliminate theprojected growth in energy demand in theregion.” Such policies could include stringentenergy codes for buildings and new stan-dards for appliances, addressing, for example,
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GeorGia eyeS a new coal-fired Power Plant