Hundreds of opponents of Dominion Power Company’s proposed $1.8 billion coal-burning power plant traveled to Richmond in early January to voice their opposition at a hearing of the State Corporation Commission.
The commission will decide on the need for the 585 megawatt plant and whether the type of technology the utility has chosen is appropriate. Dominion plans to use a fluidized bed system with possible in-stack carbon dioxide (CO2) capture, instead of other systems considered more easily adaptable to CO2 capture in the future. However, technology for capturing CO2 is still many years if not decades away.
The hearing is required under state law. Legal challenges were filed in September 2007 by the Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Appalachian Voices, the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, and the Southern Environmental Law center.
About a dozen local officials from Wise and Russell counties appeared at the hearing to support the plant, voicing concerns about the need for jobs and for a chance for their children to grow up near home, instead of having to move away.
But the majority of the 176 people who signed up to speak at the hearing were opposed to the plant for reasons of health, safety and the lack of any attempt by Dominion to conserve energy instead of building more capacity.
The Wise power plant proposal is unique, since the Virginia legislature directly guaranteed Dominion power company a high rate of return for building an electrical generating plant in a coal mining region.
Observers noted that while the Republican state legislature as able to push the incentives through last year, the same legislation would probably not be passed again, given the shift in the state’s political direction towards the Democratic party.
Another unique feature of the plant is the mandate to use Virginia coal rather than coal from any other state. Critics fear that this will accelerate mountaintop removal mining in Virginia.
Yet another unique aspect of the Wise plant is the plan to use coal that was rejected or used in other ways, creating mounds of “gob.” The gob coal can be burned for energy, but it contains up to six times the mercury in comparison to ordinary coal.
The Wise plant would create about 800 jobs during the construction phase, proponents say, and could support more than 250 coal mining jobs if it goes on line in 2012. Operating the plant after that will involve only about 75 employees.
The large turnout represented “a very proud day for our coalition,” said Mary Anne Hitt, executive director of Appalachian Voices. “The result of lots of very hard grassroots organizing work on the part of numerous people was very evident.”
I think this left the SCC with the strong impression that people, everyday citizens, turned out in massive numbers, and stayed late, to speak out against Dominion’s proposal,” said Cale Jaffe, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center representing the coalition opposed to the plant.
While there was disagreement about the power plant itself, both sides agreed that the level of discussion was thoughtful and respectful. One Wise County official who was in favor of the plant nevertheless agreed that “this is a debate America needs to have.”