Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wise County Plant Permitted

I've been away a few days, over in Wise County, Virginia, at the far western tip of the state. I was testifying before the Air Quality Board against the proposed Wise county coal-fired plant, know officially as the Virginia Cities Hybrid Energy Center--makes it sound like a Prius, doesn't it?

Tough trip for a 3-minute gig--9 hours each way--but statewide representation was called for and TWCAN and our eco allies have been battling this plant for a couple of years now. There was a good showing; we mustered about 110 people from all over the state, not bad for a hearing spanning a couple of weekdays out in the middle of nowhere (largest gathering of Toyota Prius' (Prii?) I've ever seen: 15).

Unfortunately, I just read in the news this morning that the Air Board approved the permits last night. Still this was a qualified "win" for us as opponents forced several amendments. Dominion Power will now cut allowable Mercury output from ~10 lbs per year to 4 lbs and Sulfur Dioxide from 2,400 tons per year to 600. We did not convince the Air Board they had a duty to regulate Carbon Dioxide, despite the recent Supreme Court ruling. That was disappointing. By the way, Dominion could still do better on Mercury emissions. There is a Pennsylvania plant that has Mercury down to 1 pound per year. Since every fresh water body in the Commonwealth of Virginia has a warning about consuming fish because of Mercury contamination from coal-fired plants, the Air Board should have gone for the 1 lb standard.

Also as part of the deal, Dominion is going to convert two nearby coal-fired plants--built in the 50's and real polluters--to natural gas, which reduces the state's overall pollutants profile considerably, and was the rationale for allowing the 4 lbs of Mercury. But that was really a case of making necessity a virtue, since Dominion would soon come under considerable pressure to do something about the pollutants from those ancient plants in any event.

From the beginning this plant was designed as a fairly innovative circulating fluid bed "hybrid" plant that could burn waste wood and piles of coal left all over the ground from previous mining operations in the region. That left over coal is called "gob piles" by the locals. Runoff from gob piles has been polluting streams and rivers in Virginia for decades. There was a amendment added to the permits to prohibit the cutting of standing timber for fuel, only waste products.

The downside of this ruling:

* there's still no such thing as "clean coal," and mercury and acid gases--CO2 and SO4--are still being emitted,

* there is no requirement to actually collect and burn the gob piles,

* the plant is required to burn Virginia coal, which means more mountain top removal mining--which is really heartbreaking to see,

* while this plant might meet all existing state and federal regulations, if national politics continue as forecast there will be a substantial change in clean air regulations after the November elections, probably making this plant obsolete before it is built,

* no compromises were made on increasing statewide energy efficiency. According to the DOE EIA the average Virginian still uses twice as much energy (per capita, less transportation) as the average Californian, yet California has the world's 7th largest economy,

* at $2 billion this plant is no bargain for Dominion ratepayers as a guaranteed 14% increase in rates is built into the legislation. Not included in the future costs are adding carbon capture and sequestration capabilities as they become available--if they ever becomes available. (and if it will even work here. It is still not proven that abandoned coal seams are sufficiently air tight hold the carbon).

* Plus we should add in the costs of disease from the pollutants, lost work time and productivity due to those diseases, and lost revenue from eco-tourism, not to mention the costs of more CO2 emissions, if Congress implements some sort of Carbon cap and trade system.

Water quality is a real mixed bag in this deal. Dominion is reducing treatment of returned water by boiling most of it off in the operation. But the water will still comes from the scenic and environmentally sensitive Clinch River--home of many lucrative eco-tourism businesses. The Clinch River is also the source of water for the nearby Cabo coal-fired plant, which will lower water levels even more during dry season.

I'm still digesting it all. On the one hand, not a bad showing in the heart of coal country, I suppose. But on the other, you have to wonder about the folks of that region who showed up supporting this plant.

For 100 years coal has promised to pave their streets with gold, yet they're still the most economically depressed, polluted and diseased area of the state with the state's highest per capita suicide rate, alcoholism rate, lung disease rate, and exodus rate. In the end, Virgina missed an opportunity to bury coal as a source of power.

Already nationwide 80 coal-fired plants have been taken off of the books n favor of alternative energy and energy efficiency. Even the Department of Energy has abandoned its efforts at to build a super efficient coal fired plant as unworkable. There is no such thing as Clean Coal.

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