Judge clarifies Plant Washington ruling

A December court ruling that could have sent a key Plant Washington permit back to the drawing board was clarified Tuesday in a way that, backers of the project say, could smooth the way toward keeping the $2 billion project on track.

The 850-megawatt, coal-fired power plant planned near Sandersville can’t move ahead until a handful of state environmental permits are finalized. Three of its permits were appealed last year, with at least partial success, by a consortium of environmental groups.

Administrative law judge Ronit Walker ruled in December that the state Environmental Protection Division had failed to analyze data enough to justify its decisions about fine particle and carbon monoxide limits in the Plant Washington air permit. Environmental groups touted the ruling as a victory that appeared to revoke the entire permit.

But the judge clarified Tuesday that the majority of the air permit may stand. EPD and Power4Georgians, the consortium of electric cooperatives building the plant, need only revise the two sections that the court found inadequate.

Power4Georgians touted the ruling as a victory, saying in a news release that “the delay resulting from this action by opponents is negligible and the Plant Washington project is moving forward on a good schedule.”

However, the project’s opponents said they actually participated in drafting the motion the judge approved.

The ruling doesn’t change the judge’s findings or conclusions of law, said John Suttles, lead attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents environmental groups appealing the permits. And it still allows his clients plenty of time to appeal portions of the ruling that favored the state and Power4Georgians.

Deborah Sheppard, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper advocacy group, said, “(Power4Georgians) has declared a housekeeping matter a legal victory, which it most certainly is not.”

Its effect on the Plant Washington timeline is unclear, too. State air branch chief Jac Capp said the state has not yet determined how to approach changes to the permit, nor how long they will take. But he said any changes will go through public notice and comment.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.