Pan Appalachian Defender

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Power Plant: Blessing or Curse?

Tricia Shapiro

A consortium of five power companies led by Dominion proposes to build a new power plant near St. Paul, in Wise County, VA. The plant would generate 500-600 megawatts of electricity, enough to power as many as 360,000 homes. The plant’s “circulating fluidized bed” (CFB) technology would enable it to burn waste coal (a byproduct of coal processing that’s mostly rock) and biomass (trees or construction waste) as well as regular coal. With Dominion now just beginning to seek government permits and approvals, the plant is projected to begin construction in 2008 and begin operation in 2012.
Clean-air advocates, people concerned about global warming, people who care about the Clinch River and its tributaries, and people concerned about the ill effects of large-scale strip mining all have expressed skeptical points of view about the plant, for different reasons.
Dominion has been describing the proposed plant as a “clean coal power station,” with state-of-the-art pollution controls, although it’s doubtful whether the label “clean coal” should be applied to the end product of large-scale strip mining that destroys landscapes wholesale. Dominion has also claimed that the plant will benefit the area’s economy, through Dominion’s stated intention to buy coal for the plant in Virginia, and through jobs the proposed plant would add to the local economy. Skeptics note that most of those jobs will be temporary, for construction work at the plant, and that likely much or most of that work will be done by specialist contractors from outside the region, rather than by local contractors and workers.
Most people-- corporate spokesmen, government officials, and private citizens alike--have particular interests, and are more concerned about some factors relating to this power plant proposal than about others. But the potential impact of the plant can’t truly be assessed without looking at all of these factors at once, and looking at the plant’s wider context as well.
A key part of that wider context is the old and very dirty coal-fired power plant operated by AEP along the Clinch River in Carbo, just a few miles from the site of the proposed new plant. Operating since the 1950s and lacking modern pollution controls, the smokestacks at Carbo emit as much as a quarter of a million pounds of sulphuric acid and two million pounds of hydrochloric acid each year, along with mercury and other toxins. Shutting this plant down would be a pure blessing for everyone who cares about acid rain and water quality, or who breathes the air in this region--except perhaps for the people who have jobs at Carbo.
However, those jobs are likely to
be lost anyway--perhaps sooner if the new plant is built, as AEP is part of the consortium proposing the plant. So far, AEP has avoided installing pollution controls at the Carbo plant by cleaning up other, more modern plants it owns elsewhere, under federal cap-and-trade rules. It apparently has no intention of making similar upgrades at Carbo, but surely must expect that someday either the state or the federal government will no longer allow it to pump out as much pollution as the plant does today. When that day comes, it’s a good guess that AEP will shut the Carbo plant down rather than upgrade it. AEP’s stake in the new power plant, so close to its old one, certainly makes closure of the old plant look more likely. Dominion’s claim that the proposed plant means a gain in local jobs thus looks even more hollow.
The proposed plant’s wider context surely also includes its fuel sources. Local sourcing of any fuel for such a large plant would have large effects locally. If biomass is a significant part of the fuel mix, many thousands of acres of forest will be stripped. If waste coal is used, vast quantities of toxic ash will be produced. If regular coal is used, the proposed plant will create a large demand for coal for the next 50 years or more--while it’s typically projected that if coal mining continues at anything like its current rate, coal throughout Appalachia will be pretty much mined out in 10 to 30 years. Worse still, most of that coal would likely come from strip mining, which has already proved devastating to the region’s environment, economy, and local communities.


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