Judge Rules for Environmental Groups in Challenge to Virginia Power Plant
In a momentous victory for clean energy advocates in Virginia, a Richmond Circuit Court judge ruled today that the State Air Pollution Control Board violated federal environmental law in permitting Dominion Power’s coal-fired power plant in Wise County in the southwest corner of the state.
Judge Margaret P. Spencer agreed with a coalition of environmental groups that the “escape hatch” in Dominion’s Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) permit rendered that permit unlawful. The Clean Air Act’s MACT program regulates emissions of hazardous air toxics, such as mercury, which can cause severe neurological deficits in infants, fetuses and young children. Judge Spencer ruled that the “mercury emission limit … must be set ‘irrespective of cost or achievability,’” and that the “escape hatch” was “violative of the laws addressing pre-construction mandates.”
When Congress passed the Clean Air Act, it required that such permits be obtained before construction begins on a power plant, to ensure that it is designed and built in a way to protect the public health and welfare. Dominion, which started construction a week after the Virginia air board approved the permits in June 2008, has said the plant is about 20 percent complete. The judge’s ruling granted the coalition’s requested relief, which was to invalidate the MACT permit.
In addition to the challenge on the mercury permit, the coalition also sued the air board in July 2008 for issuing a permit that failed to adequately limit emissions from the coal plant of approximately 5.4 million tons a year of carbon dioxide, small particles of soot, and other so-called “conventional” pollutants. The court affirmed the “Prevention of Significant Deterioration” (“PSD”) permit, regulating conventional pollutants.
The Wise Energy for Virginia Coalition has raised a host of concerns about the Wise County coal plant over the last several years, including air pollution and the health of the local community, water quality, mountaintop removal coal mining, and the impacts of the plant’s carbon emissions on global warming. Some 42,500 Virginians from across the state signed petitions and sent letters and comments to state and company officials opposing the project.
Following are statements from coalition members.
CALE JAFFE, Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney:
“This is an important victory for the health and welfare of Virginians. Once a coal plant is completed, it may prove very difficult to retrofit after the fact to remedy violations of the Clean Air Act. So this decision is essential for assuring that the Clean Air Act’s most stringent health-based standards will be met before a coal plant is constructed. We hope Dominion will take this ruling as a sign that it needs to leave expensive coal-fired power plants in the past, and move quickly toward developing sustainable, clean energy sources for a 21st century green economy.”
KATHY SELVAGE, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards: “For the citizens of southwest Virginia this ruling today will provide a longer and healthier life. The Commonwealth should be moving swiftly toward producing the energy we need through non-polluting means like the BP/Dominion wind farm proposed for Wise County to further strengthen the health of the people and the environment.”
TOM CORMONS, Appalachian Voices: “Today’s ruling is cause for celebration for Virginians all over the state who’ve opposed the permitting of this plant from the beginning. It underscores the dangers and costs of increased reliance on coal and we hope it will help spur an aggressive move toward clean energy that supplies electricity needs without polluting Virginia’s air or destroying its mountains.”
LAUREN GLICKMAN: “Today’s ruling represents a major step away from the economic and environmental devastation caused by our reliance on coal towards a rational energy policy of renewable energy and efficiency. Although the judge did not send the CO2 issue back to the air board, we hope that as Congress debates sweeping climate change legislation, Dominion will see the writing on the wall and begin to curb its carbon emissions.”
GLEN BESA, Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club: “We would urge Dominion to reassess its decision to build this coal plant. The ruling today is related to air pollution, but Dominion really needs to consider alternatives such as efficiency and renewable energy. Now would be a good time.”
The mission of the Wise Energy for Virginia Coalition is to halt new coal-burning power plants from being built and end the destructive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining in Virginia, and re-power the Commonwealth with cleaner, less expensive, sustainable energy sources. The coalition includes Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Sierra Club and Southern Environmental Law Center.