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.

The blessings and the curses of weekly newspapers

Several years ago I edited The Wrightsville Headlight in neighboring Johnson County. I spent a year there meeting and working with some of the nicest people I will ever know.

The upside of a weekly paper is that when you print something readers like, you have a whole week for people to say nice things about the paper. When you run a story about an issue which divides people, there is always an opportunity for a week’s worth of phone calls and passionate discussion.

One serious downside of weeklies is that readers must wait a week to see any corrections or clarifications in print.

This week’s edition of The Sandersville Progress didn’t get some important facts clear about a pending settlement concerning the construction permit for Plant Washington or the Greenhouse Gas Rule (GHG, or carbon pollution rule).

The paper’s coverage did not include or state clearly:

  1. P4G (Power4Georgians) does not have a final permit, and the amended permit must stand for public comments before it can be final. This will take weeks to complete.

2. The carbon pollution rule (also called Green House Gas or GHG rule), was announced on Friday, April 13.  Plant Washington needed a final and complete permit before April 13th to be considered exempt from the rule.  In addition, P4G must commence construction before April 13, 2013 in order to avoid this additional pollution control rule. The clock is running now on this project.

3. If Plant Washington fails to meet the exemption criteria announced by the EPA, it will have to meet the new carbon pollution rules.

4. “Commence construction” requires more than moving some dirt around. It might be demonstrated by a contract for a boiler for the facility. For a facility of this size experts estimate the cost to be about $400M, with additional cancellation penalties ranging from $20M-$80M. There is no indication that P4G has done any of the engineering work required to order a boiler. There is also no indication that P4G has lined up the financing that would allow it to enter such a significant contractual commitment.

5. No company has built a new coal plant to meet the new Mercury and Air Toxins rules which were finalized earlier this year. Dean Alford, the project developer, has never built a coal plant.

6.The remaining four co-ops in P4G do not have any Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) in place for customers to purchase electricity generated by Plant Washington.

  7. Dean Alford said that the PPAs will be used to help acquire financing loans for the project in addition to the bonds it expects the county to issue. Therefore, there is no indication that P4G has the necessary financing in place for the project.

I understand that the Progress works with limited staff and that the publisher, Trib Publication, has no online capacity to run corrections or clarifications promptly.

Whether the paper is crystal clear or not, thre are people who rely on it heavily for their local news (and we have a high population of people here who do not use the internet at all). It will be another week before we all see high school sports pictures, read Shirley Friedman’s column, or find out that in fact Plant Washington isn’t “full steam ahead.”

In fact, it seems to be sputtering.

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.