Developers of the proposed Plant Washington say they have the final permit from the state that clears the way for construction of the proposed coal-fired power plant in Sandersville, but opponents say the permit wont be official until they sign off on a settlement reached Monday.
Power4Georgians, a consortium of four Georgia electric membership cooperatives developing the 850-megawatt plant, came to terms with environmental groups opposing the plant by agreeing to comply with safeguards against mercury pollution and other air toxins. Power4Georgians also agreed to drop plans to build another coal-fired plant in Ben Hill County and to invest $5 million in energy-efficient and renewable projects.
The settlement left both sides claiming victory.
The real headline here is Plant Washington is now moving forward, said Dean Alford, spokesman for Power4Georgians.
Clean-air advocates had challenged the final air permit. The permit will not be final until the four environmental groups sign off on the settlement and the state Environmental Protection Division holds a 30-day period for public comment, said Jenna Garland of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club.
Were talking at least a month. Thats not to say there wont be any more legal challenges, Garland said. Its not final in any way.
Timing is important due to proposed federal rules that would require new plants to reduce or capture harmful carbon emissions. The requirements likely would drive up the cost of Plant Washington and similar projects. However, the rules do not apply to new power plants that already have all environmental permits and also begin construction within a year from when the rule is published in the Federal Register, which could happen later this month. Plant Washington could escape the new rules if it breaks ground in time.
Opponents say Power4Georgians is not prepared to meet those new requirements.
Kurt Ebersbach, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which helped represent the groups challenging Plant Washingtons last needed permit, said filings in the case indicate that Power4Georgians have not done the engineering, lined up investors or met any of the criteria that EPA is looking at to exempt a new source from complying with the carbon pollution rule.
Opponents also doubt that Power4Georgians can find enough investors to fund the plant. Alford, however, says financing will not be an issue.
Weve been working on that for quite some time. We have every reason to believe well be able to do that, he said. These electric cooperatives are business people, and if they did not have this in a situation where they believe that this plant could be built, they wouldnt be spending their dollars.
The consortium hopes to begin building the $2.1 billion plant in 2013. Officials say Plant Washington is expected to create between 120 and 130 full-time jobs on-site -- paying $7 million in wages and benefits -- and another 200 to 300 secondary jobs in supporting businesses and industries.
The settlement agreement is pending approval of each of the groups that challenged the permit: the Sierra Club, the Fall Line Alliance for a Clean Environment, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Ogeechee Riverkeeper.
Alford, the Power4Georgians spokesman, said the settlement provides a pathway that allows us to deal with all their issues and basically puts us in the position to move forward with the construction of Plant Washington.
Katherine Helms Cummings, director of the Fall Line Alliance for a Clean Environment and a Washington County resident, said its doubtful that Plant Washington will be built.
The demand for electricity just isnt there, and since the plant was announced over four years ago, cheaper electricity from natural gas and renewables is now readily available, Cummings said in a news release from the challenging groups. Still, any proposed coal plant must do the maximum to reduce toxic pollution and risk to Georgians. Nothing less is acceptable.
Colleen Kiernan, director of the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, said that before the groups challenged the permit, Plant Washington was going to send 40 times more mercury into our air and water each year, endangering our most vulnerable citizens.
We knew the law was on our side, we challenged Power4Georgians, and now Georgias air, water, and people will be protected, Kiernan said in the release.
The environmental groups said the cancellation of Plant Ben Hill marks 168 total coal plant proposals canceled across the country due to changing market conditions, legal challenges and local opposition. In addition, they said, New Jersey-based LS Power canceled the Plant Longleaf coal plant proposal, which would have been built in Georgias Early County, and 106 coal plants have been scheduled for retirement, including two units at Plant Branch near Milledgeville.
Justine Thompson, attorney for GreenLaw, which worked with the clean air advocates on the Plant Ben Hill opposition, said the cancellation of that project is just one more sign that coal is dead.
To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.