Driving dirty air

The Republican Party, which is now Donald Trump’s Republican Party (DTRP), has long heralded itself as the party of less big government and more local control. They’ve argued that states, cities, and counties know what is best for them and they should set standards.

DTRP dislikes car emission standards set by California’s elected leaders  so much so that a court battle looms over the state’s ability to set standards for vehicles, which California began doing in 1966.

In fact, the emission standards have worked so well that 13 states adopted California’s standards, meaning that car and light truck manufacturers have already designed their products and factories to meet emission standards which keep air cleaner. It also means consumers are buying these cars and trucks. Tough emission standards didn’t serve as a death-blow to auto sales in those states.

The same can be said for gas mileage standards.  DTRP wants to reduce mileage standards for vehicles, but that doesn’t mean consumers will race out to buy something new to drive. Consumers expect and demand good mileage, safety features, and low emissions.

Manufacturers couldn’t, and wouldn’t, retool their factories in an afternoon to produce gas-guzzling, dirty emission spewing cars just because the DTRP says it is ok. In fact, just two months ago, four manufacturers agreed to meet  continue to meet California’s vehicle standards.

A quick survey of the popularity of electric vehicles, hybrids, and high-efficiency gas fueled cars and trucks, would remind manufacturers that consumers want and expect cleaner running, higher mileage, vehicles. Both domestic and foreign car companies continue to offer best selling models with hybrid versions, and are also re-introducing retired versions of hybrids, because if they don’t, customers will drive past those dealerships on the way to others who offer what they want.

Donal Trump’s Republican Party can deny all kinds of reality and science, but car dealers won’t deny the reality of their bottom line. Profits are increasingly driven by consumers who buy cars using less or no gas, and emitting as little air pollutants as possible.

Car standards aren’t set at the White House any more; they are determined by consumers with their wallets in dealer showrooms and at gas pumps.

 

 

What was Georgia Power doing at Plant Branch on New Year’s weekend?

Georgia’s coal ash monitoring laws are awfully easy on power companies. The companies get to monitor their heaping piles of coal ash waste piles and ponds themselves.

Thank goodness the Altamaha Riverkeeper (aided by Tonya Bonitatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper) checked up on the coal ash ponds at Plant Blanch, which abut Lake Sinclair, last weekend.

There was a lot of activity there on Saturday, with large trucks in and out at the ponds and generators buzzing due to the tremendous amount of rain recently.

What was flowing into the lake just didn’t look like normal runoff, so Jen Hilburn, Altamaha Riverkeeper (ARK),  put in a call to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Hilburn said in a press release, “I am deeply concerned about what sounds like pumping of water into Lake Sinclair.  If this is coming directly from the coal ash ponds into the lake, it could pose a threat to our community on the lake as well as many others who utilize its waters. Georgia Power appears to be delibrately dumping coal ash waste directly into the lake. I am surprised that no-one I spoke with on Lake Sinclair had been notified in anyway by Georgia Power of their activities”

coal ash spill at Kingston, TN, photo from New York Times
coal ash spill at Kingston, TN, photo from New York Times

Coal ash ponds are notorious for leaking, or worse, collapsing, as they did in Kingston, TN on December 22, 2008. That community was flooded with 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry from a TVA coal plant. Coal ash waste also contaminated the Dan River on the Virginia-North Carolina state line in 2014 as a result of nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act by Duke Energy. 

How risky are the coal ash ponds at Plant Branch?

Since 2010 Plant Branch’s coal ash ponds have been considered “High Hazard” for contamination or failure by the Environmental Protection Agency. Did Georgia Power try to avert a pond breach or overflow by  pumping the coal ash waste into Lake Sinclair? I’m anxious to learn what the EPD says in their findings.

While ARK, and concerned citizens, wait to hear back from the EPD, the Riverkeeper is advising that no fish be consumed from Lake Sinclair until more is known about the safety of the water.

What can Georgians do in the meantime?

Our General Assembly convenes next week. Ask your state legislators NOW to require stricter monitoring of the coal ash waste landfills and ponds that pepper our state. Even though wind and solar are becoming a larger part of our fuel resources, the heavy metals and toxins in coal ash waste are forever. As last weekend demonstrates, shuttering a coal plant like Plant Branch doesn’t solve the problem of safely storing the contaminated waste it has left behind.

Allowing Georgia Power and other coal burning companies in our state to self-monitor their toxic waste isn’t working. The Georgia General Assembly can do something about that beginning next week.

 

Another hurdle for “dormant” Plant Washington

The Carbon Pollution Standards for new power plants announced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on August 3rd confirm that Plant Washington will not get a “pass”, adding yet another hurdle to the development of one of the last proposed new coal plants in the country.

The new standards rely on partial capture and storage of carbon dioxide emissions. Plant Washington project spokesman Dean Alford has said that such a standard will result in cancellation of the coal-fired project because it was not designed to meet the standard. To avoid that outcome, the project developer, Power4Georgians, LLC (P4G) sought to convince EPA that the project had “commenced construction” when the standards for new sources were first proposed in January 2014.  Under such circumstances, Plant Washington would be considered an existing source exempt from the new standards

Dean Alford
Dean Alford

But as Alford and P4G are now finding, there’s a difference between saying something and proving it.

Almost two years ago, in the draft version of the standards, the EPA specifically addressed Plant Washington and another proposed coal-fired plant in Kansas. The agency took the developers at their word that the plants were under construction and therefore qualified as existing sources.  But EPA also said that if either plant failed to qualify as an existing source, and was therefore classified as a new source, the agency would consider granting special standards due to the unique circumstances that both already had their construction permits.  The idea was that these two sources, the last two coal plants still supposedly under development in the country, would get special treatment – perhaps a standard less stringent than that applied to other new sources.  Otherwise the two lingering plants might not get built despite their “sunk costs.”

But last week, in the final rule, EPA said it is “unaware of any physical construction that has taken place at the proposed Plant Washington site,” and noted that a recent audit of the project had described it as “dormant.” EPA said it appears that Plant Washington did not commence construction when the new source rule was proposed, and would therefore likely be considered a new source should it ever be constructed.
 

The EPA pointed out that in October 2014, P4G received an 18-month extension on Plant Washington’s air permit from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. The EPA went on to say that the possibility of Plant Washington being built and operating is “too remote” to merit an exemption from the new carbon emission standards.

So Plant Washington is not an existing source.  But what kind of carbon standard will it get? Remember that EPA said it would give Plant Washington and the Kansas project their own new source carbon standards.  Well, on this point, EPA punted.  Why?  Because the agency views it as so unlikely that these projects will actually go forward that it doesn’t want to spend the time coming up with individualized standards.  In the agency’s words, “because these units may never actually be fully built and operated, we are not promulgating a standard of performance at this time because such action may prove to be unnecessary.”

Ouch. 

EPA puts the ball P4G’s court, telling the developer that it must formally request a determination of its status — new or existing —  before EPA can decide whether and what kind of standards should apply to its carbon emissions.

P4G has had the ability since January 2014 to seek this so-called “applicability determination,” which would clear up once and for all the question of its status under the new standards.  In fact, under Alford’s leadership, P4G sought such an “applicability determination” from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, but later chose to withdraw that request before the state agency could respond. Rather than clarify the project’s status, Alford opted to pursue an 18-month extension of the construction deadline under Plant Washington’s state-issued air permit. Alford got the extension, but this did little to convince EPA of P4G’s claim that the project had commenced construction in January 2014.  Instead, EPA arrived at the opposite conclusion: that Plant Washington is going nowhere fast.

Thanks to EPD’s generosity, Plant Washington still has 8 months left on its deadline to construct under the air permit.  But the project’s water discharge permit, another critical piece of the project, expired in March of this year. P4G failed to timely file an application to renew the permit prior to its expiration, prompting EPD to fine P4G.  EPD gave P4G thirty days to cure the defect but P4G missed that deadline as well.    These are not the actions of a project developer intent on meeting its construction deadline. 

And here in Washington County, there are no signs the coal-fire project is going forward, even at a snail’s pace. No ground has been broken, no Power Purchase Agreements have been announced, and no financier willing to pour the necessary billions into the project has emerged.

The EPA was correct in its refusal to exempt Plant Washington from the new carbon emission
standards.  The plant is not needed and would be a major source of carbon emissions.

Over 8.5 years have passed since this boondoggle plant was first announced, and its future is not one bit brighter than it was on the cold, gray, January day when it was unveiled. If Mr. Alford returns for yet another permit extension next year, the state would be wise to tell him that the final buzzer has sounded and no more time can be added to the game clock

Sunday reads

Just some of the news I’ve been catching up on today:

Maggie Lee at the Macon Telegraph  has an article about last Monday’s carbon pollution rules and the shift already underway towards renewal energy sources in Georgia.

Jay Bookman at the Atlanta Journal Constitution points out that the world didn’t come to an end years ago when Atlanta’s air quality was classified as “non-attainment” and the city was required to take action to reduce smog and other problems (the article concludes behind their pay wall).

The AJC is doing a series of articles on climate change and the impacts already seen on Georgia’s coast called “A rising tide of concern.” The articles are behind a pay wall and include this: “David Stooksbury, the former state climatologist, said the unwillingness of leaders to address climate change is dangerous.’I don’t think that most of our elected officials understand the long-term seriousness of what climate change will do to the agricultural economy, public health and the environment,’ Stooksbury said. ‘It will be much cheaper and better for the state if we follow a well-developed plan starting now rather than waiting until we must respond.’ ”

Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources is quoted too, stating, “Last month the wildlife resources division of the Department of Natural Resources issued its State Wildlife Action Plan, or SWAP, which states unequivocally that “climate change presents unprecedented challenges.”

The AJC reports that Governor Nathan Deal had no statement on climate change. Senator David Perdue, who lives in a mansion on one of Georgia’s Barrier Islands, Sea Island, told the AJC, ““the scientific community is not in total agreement about whether mankind has been a contributing factor.”

The rising tides will eventually wash away the sand Perdue and others have their heads buried in on this subject and many others.

 

Today’s EPA deadline

The Friday Photo
May 9, 2014

pine trees
mature pine trees in our front yard

I had other plans for The Friday Photo today but spent more time than I expected crafting my comments to the EPA about proposed carbon pollution rules for existing power plants and why Plant Washington isn’t an existing source of greenhouse gases. The deadline was today at 5:00 p.m.

My comments included this:

“On a sunshine soaked afternoon in September 2013 while Power4Georgians was announcing its intent to request permit extensions from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, crews hired by the current land owners were preparing the proposed plant site for planting timber. Growing timber is an investment in time and money, as my family knows from timber management on our family farm. Growing trees requires patience as it takes several years before even a thinning of the growth is necessary, with significant harvesting sometimes requiring 20 years of patient waiting and watching.”

Just like growing timber, fighting Plant Washington has required time and patience, and some watching and waiting. The investment for those of us who steeled ourselves and stood up in our community has been worth the effort. We won’t have to wait decades for the return on our investment.

It’s about fresh tomatoes and spitting watermelon seeds

coal-plants-wasteThe EPA held two public listening sessions in Atlanta yesterday concerning carbon pollution (greenhouse gas) and regulations which will be announced for existing coal power plants next year. At the last minute I wasn’t able to go to Atlanta to share mine in person. My three minutes of comments are below, which I will submit to the EPA by email.

I want to thank you for holding a public listening session in Atlanta, just miles from the country’s largest carbon emitting power plant, Plant Scherer. I live in rural Washington County, in Middle Georgia, about 2.5 hours southeast of Atlanta. My family and community are downwind about 60 miles from Scherer, and 30 miles from another coal plant, Plant Branch. After almost six years since it was announced, my community remains opposed to Plant Washington, an 850 MW coal plant that would be about eight miles from my front door in the eastern part of my county.

As a rural resident who relies on a well as our only source of water, we already know and live with the impact of uncontrolled carbon pollution in our country. Years of drought affect our ability to do basic things like run two loads of laundry in one day, even with a high-efficiency washing machine. Last summer, in 2012, my husband, who loves planting and taking care of his small garden, had to let his garden go. We had no captured rainwater to use and had to decide between having household water and fresh vegetables picked just minutes before dinner.

This past summer we had the other extreme. Our gardens drowned and our creeks and rivers overflowed.

At the end of the summer a year ago, I sadly realized I had not had nearly enough fresh locally grown tomatoes. There just weren’t any to be had. This past summer drug on with the rain gauge overflowing and the tomatoes suffering from root rot or bursting on the vines from too much water.

There is a very real connection between Plant Scherer, Plant Branch, the proposed Plant Washington, and carbon pollution. Kids missed out on spitting watermelon seeds in the backyard. And it is a crime for parents to not be able to say, “Eat those tomatoes and quit picking at your green beans. I grew them and you have to eat them.”

The damage done by unregulated carbon pollution in our country is here and we can see it at our dinner tables every night.

I urge the EPA to adopt strict carbon emission limits for existing power plants, and to require even stricter limits for Plant Washington, Plant Holcomb, and Plant Wolverine.

 

 

Is this the beginning of the Blame Game?

Today’s EPA ruling isn’t the reason Plant Washington won’t ever be built. It will, however, serve to drive home the fact that this project has always been  an exercise in bad business decisions in addition to the environmental and health impacts it would have on our area.

Supporters will say the EPA’s carbon control rules killed the plant. That will hardly be the case. The plant has never had a demonstrated need, and at every turn plant supporters have seen their weak arguments only grow weaker.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my 52 years,  and I’ll make plenty more in the future. Opposing Plant Washington isn’t one of them.

Coming full circle

President Obama’s announcement about carbon pollution controls Tuesday at Georgetown University closed the circle in some ways on the future of Plant Washington. It won’t matter whether Plant Washington belches carbon into the air as a new source or an existing source, it will have to reduce and control the amount of Greenhouse Gases (GHG, or most commonly called carbon) it emits.

And that won’t be cheap.

Plant Washington has never modeled for carbon control, so the already doubled price tag Co2_Smokestack-284x300just to construct it won’t be going down.

We have a surplus supply of cheap electricity on the market. Power generated from Plant Washington won’t be any “better” than what we can get today. All we’ve heard about buying power from this plant is a lot of talk about getting a “preferred position” for future power contracts.

I am willing to bet that anyone who might consider financing this carbon fueled project will not just prefer a sound business plan with realistic returns on their investment, they will require it.

When that happens, Plant Washington will be nothing more than a failed hot air project in an economy and country already moving away coal.

Now the real work begins

The fight to stop Plant Washington is going to get very interesting because developer Dean Alford’s filings with the EPA will be subject to Open Records sunlight.

Alford claims he met EPA requirements to “commence construction” by midnight April 12 when he signed a boiler contract with IHI Corporation in Japan and a site erection contract with Zachry Industrial in the United States.

EPA “commence construction” requires more than signing a contract. Georgia EPD staffer Jac Capp told the Macon Telegraph earlier this month that commence construction, “means that the source has both ‘begun a continuous program of actual on-site construction’ and ‘entered into binding agreements or contractual obligations which cannot be canceled without a substantial loss.’

Last Saturday, a day drenched in brilliant sunlight, I drove past the plant site. There was a dead armadillo in the road, but except for some March storm damage, not much has changed on either side of the Mayview Road, which divides the plant site, since January 2008. The dirt roads crossing the plant have no tracks indicating heavy equipment has moved in for construction work ahead.

Meeting the requirement of a “substantial loss” will now require more than Alford saying there are “several” entities lined up for this project, which is all he offered to the Atlanta Journal Constitution in January 2012 when his largest backer, Cobb EMC walked from the project. Earlier this month Alford told the Macon Telegraph he has “way over the amount of money I need for this project.” Hopefully the contract documents will soon be made public so that we’ll finally get a chance to see what all this talk is made of, and who is willing to invest in it besides the latecomer to the game, designated hitter Taylor Energy Fund.

There are brand spanking new coal plants, some built and owned by EMCs, like Spiritwood in Minnesota, which have never powered a single light bulb because the operating costs were prohibitive. Other plants, like Prairie State in Illinois, have saddled ratepayers with higher rates before supplying them with any power.

Sure, I wish Alford had called it a day late last Friday night, but I am not surprised. He doesn’t live here, he doesn’t rely on the local groundwater when he wants a drink of water, and his grandchildren won’t be breathing Plant Washington toxins into their lungs when they play outside.

For those of us who have real skin in the game, the work has just begun.

You can’t take “way over” to the bank

Last Wednesday’s Macon Telegraph included coverage of the long-lingering proposed Plant Washington and developer Dean Alford’s race to meet an April 12 “commence construction” carbon pollution rule deadline set by the EPA almost a year ago.

Should someone call or email Alford? Maybe he missed exactly what the EPA said when it announced the carbon rule (see section 2.2.4). Maybe he hasn’t seen the EPA filings specifically about Plant Washington, or the news coverage and numerous web site postings in the past year pointing out that beating the clock on the April 12 deadline won’t help his no-bid project.

When the EPA announced the deadline, the agency said very clearly that to be exempt from the carbon rule, new coal plants had to have a final permit in hand.

Plant Washington didn’t have a final permit when the rule was announced.

So it isn’t exempt from the carbon emission rules when you get right down to what the EPA said. We all know from past playground experience, whoever makes the rules also gets to enforce them.

The EPA knows exactly when Alford got a final permit because last spring in another set of court filings pertaining to mercury emissions, the agency refers to Plant Washington’s lack of a final permit at the time the carbon rule was announced. The EPA’s filing included this, “The Power 4 Georgians’ (“P4G”) Project (Case No. 12-1184): Movants submit a declaration stating that “as of April 9, 2012, P4G has a final PSD permit and all other required permit approvals necessary to commence construction of Plant Washington.” Mot. Ex. H ¶ 5. This assertion is incorrect, inasmuch as state administrative challenges to the P4G permit remain pending.”

Ooops.

Other coal developers did get the news. They ran the numbers again for their projects as natural gas, and even wind and solar, gained more ground in the power generation market.

Like dominoes, developers began cancelling proposed plants, even in coal friendly states like Texas. The math just didn’t add up any longer. They couldn’t finance, build, and then sell coal-generated power for a profit. They said new coal can’t compete, and existing coal isn’t so cheap either. Beating an April 12 deadline wouldn’t help them. They couldn’t afford to go forward.

Despite the fact that the carbon rule does apply to Plant Washington (and Alford said that having to meet carbon rules would kill the project), Alford has continued talking up his project and making a lot out of meeting the April 12 deadline.

Earlier this week Alford continued the charade when he told the Telegraph “If I add up everybody I’m talking to, I’ve got way over the amount of money I need for this project.”

“Way over” must be A LOT of money, because conservative 2011 estimates, without carbon controls, put Plant Washington at a whopping $3.9B, almost doubling the original $2.1B estimate in 2008. I can’t imagine how many zeros would be added to a price estimate to engineer and control for carbon.

Alford is “talking to” utilities, private investors, pension funds and independent power producers. (Never mind that one doesn’t “talk to” pension funds, it is the fund manager who must be convinced to invest.) Power4Georgians (P4G) and Washington EMC also think there is no reason to be burdened by a pro forma study or independent market analysis to make the case to investors, so at least they aren’t having to trot out tried and true methods of return on investment to funders.

Oh yeah, “talking to” is also not the same as having power purchase agreements, contractors, an EPA approved boiler design, county issued bonds, or all the financing confirmed.

And in all this “talking to,” who is Alford saying will own this plant which will not only supply power to the power purchase customers, but also repay the debt owed in a timely manner?

When Alford announced Plant Washington in January 2008, he said it would be owned and operated by the EMCs in P4G. I heard it with my own ears because I was in the room. Alford even said that under oath in September 2010.

That all changed when his former employer, Cobb EMC, abandoned the project in January 2012. Alford made a final pitch at that meeting to keep his largest funding source engaged. The Marietta Daily Journal’s coverage last year included this from the Cobb EMC minutes, “Power4Georgians owns the permits but he (Dean Alford) stated that P4G never intended to build Plant Washington. He stated P4G’s goal has always been to obtain the permits needed and then sell them to any interested party that could build the plant.”

In January 2012 Alford told the AJC there were “hundred of entities” interested in this project. If the contracts were real, investors were lining up to get a piece of this project, and an owner had been secured, wouldn’t they have been paraded out by now?

The time for Alford and the four remaining EMCs to call it a day on Plant Washington is “way over.”

There’s no need to wait until April 12.

Public health professionals wear green

“You’ve done more public health work than most public health professionals” is high praise coming from Russ Toal, the former Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health. The fight to stop Plant Washington, for me, began out of deep concern for the health ramifications that a coal fired plant would have on the health of my community and my family.

Together with partners that include national, regional, state, and local organizations, we have seen two coal fired power plants cancelled since December (Longleaf and Ben Hill). A third project, Plant Washington, is now hobbled with new emission regulations, so that what was tenuous at best, now looks absolutely unfeasible.

Fighting coal for me, is all about public health. The health of our communities is directly tied to the quality of the air we breathe, the clean water we all want to to drink, fish that are safe to catch and eat, and the rivers and streams where we want our children to splash and swim. Not surprisingly, health organizations including the American Lung Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, American Public Health Association, American Thoracic Society and others have taken strong positions on coal and climate change.

I’ll give the Plant Washington supporters some credit. They do have some things they can point to since they announced the plant over four years ago:

  • 5 of the 9 original EMCs have withdrawn from the project
  • the former CEO of Cobb EMC, Dwight Brown, who led Power4Georgians, has 35 indictments against him for his dealings at the co-op
  • emissions standards for coal have become much more rigorous and expensive
  • demand for electricity is down
  • natural gas prices have plummeted
  • wells and rivers are stressed by drought
  • co-op owner-members across Georgia are angry about being shut out of the co-ops they own

This morning I told two county commissioners, Frank Simmons and Edward Burton, and county administrator Chris Hutchings, “Shame on you.” They have been busy toeing the line in this one family county for outdated, expensive, and unhealthy coal, while other communities have courted renewable energy based companies and hundred of jobs that will not harm their air shed or deplete stressed water supplies.

While elected officials, and business and community leaders here still cling to coal, local residents have seen a solar panel plant opened in neighboring Laurens County (approximately 400 renewable energy jobs have been announced there, and people are already at work). In two weeks, Elbert County to our north, will hold a ribbon cutting for a wind turbine plant that is already employing some of the 200 people it will tap for jobs.

In the mean time, FACE and our partners have worked tirelessly to see the proposed mercury emissions for Plant Washington drop from the original 122 lbs per year to 1.63 under the new Mercury and Air Toxins standards. Reports by the megabyte have been released about the higher power bills Washington EMC members will have to pay if the plant is built, the ready and plentiful supply of cheap electricity in our state, the risks to local wells if 16 million gallons of water per day are sucked out of the ground to feed Plant Washington, and the fact that our air shed will be placed in non-attainment, essentially putting a cap on any business locating here that would need to apply for an air permit.

I don’t know how much longer plant supporters can keep their heads in the sand because the clock is running for the developer of this no-bid project. Dean Alford is about to need a lot more money for his relic of a coal plant. Come on P4G, show us the return on this great investment you have promised us.