Plant Washington under EPA scrutiny

mlee@macon.comSeptember 20, 2013 

ATLANTA -- A new list of proposed federal greenhouse gas rules is affecting a piece of land near Sandersville slated to be the site of a coal-fired power plant.

The proposed rules mean a year or more of questions, uncertainty and delay that may be a hurdle too high for a plan that has stumbled in the past few years.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday morning that it wants all new coal- and natural gas-fired power plants to implement the first uniform, nationwide carbon pollution limits. That could mean things like carbon capture and storage technology, which is not on Plant Washington’s blueprint.

The EPA wants proof of Plant Washington’s argument that its plans and contracting are far enough along that it should be grandfathered out of these pricey new rules.

“Based solely on the developers’ representations, the projects (Plant Washington and Plant Holcomb in Kansas) would be existing sources, and thus not subject to this proposal. However, neither developer has sought a formal EPA determination of NSPS (New Source Performance Standards) applicability,” that is, whether they would fall under the new rules, the 463-page report says.

“We’re very pleased the EPA has recognized the unique nature of Plant Washington and two others in the country,” said Dean Alford, spokesman for POWER4Georgians, the would-be developer formed in 2008 to build the 850-megawatt plant. The EPA document said Washington and Holcomb could be put into a category with the further-along plant Wolverine in Michigan, thus perhaps subject to looser rules.

Alford’s company has signed contracts for machines at the heart of a plant, which he said constitutes construction.

“We feel like there’s a pathway to success for Plant Washington,” said Alford.

But at least one environmental law firm that’s been watching the plan for years predicts some level of new regulation will apply in Sandersville.

“There’s absolutely no question that Plant Washington will be subject to new greenhouse gas standards ... the question is which class it falls into,” said John Suttles, leader of the clean energy litigation team at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

When EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the carbon proposal Friday morning, she also said her agency will propose carbon rules on existing power plants in 2014.

So as Suttles sees it, Plant Washington will either be a “new” plant subject to carbon regulations suggested Friday, or put into some class of existing plants subject to future rules.

“Another scenario is someone may sue the EPA over this standard,” Alford said.

Friday’s announcement marks the EPA’s second attempt to issue such rules. An April 2012 version attracted more than 2 million public comments and were not approved by an April 2013 deadline.

“We did what democracy demands. We paid attention, we read those comments, we thought about them and we decided we needed to update the proposal,” McCarthy said.

The latest set of rules is now up for a one-year comment period.

POWER4Georgians recently asked the state environmental regulator (which administers rules for the feds) to extend the construction deadline due to uncertainty about greenhouse gas as well as mercury and rules about how toxic the air is.

Plant Washington won state approval after several years of challenges from groups, which led to some tighter requirements on mercury and fine particulate pollution.

In 2012, POWER4Georgians lost one of its biggest backers when Cobb (County) EMC’s board voted to withdraw from the project, citing uncertainty over federal pollution proposals and a lack of demand for new electricity. In April, four other EMCs dropped their partnership in the project.

“It just continues to be bad news for this project,” said plant opponent Katherine Helms Cummings, a Sandersville resident and executive director of the Fall-line Alliance for a Clean Environment.

She said the plant was poorly conceived, and there’s no demand for the expensive power it would generate.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

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