Updated Rules for Coal Air Pollution, Recent Plant Struggles Underscore High Risk of Proposed Washin
New federal safeguards for coal pollution cast further doubt on the fate of the proposed Plant Washington coal-fired power plant in Sandersville, GA. The new standards come as the nation shifts toward cleaner sources of energy, with 149 existing coal-fired plants scheduled for retirement, 179 proposed new plants canceled since 2001, and recent high-profile bankruptcies have highlighted coal’s inability to compete in the marketplace.
Plant Washington is designed to produce the equivalent carbon pollution of about one million cars, adding to the long list of cost and pollution concerns already raised by an alliance of groups representing conservation, public health, consumer, local resident, and utility co-op member interests. Today’s announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency makes it certain that Plant Washington will be required to adhere to new safeguards limiting carbon pollution from power plants. EPA is further considering the category of standards Plant Washington will be held to, adding even greater uncertainty for possible investors in the plant.
Reducing carbon pollution adds even more financial risk to the project, already estimated by developer Power4Georgians to cost more than $2 billion to construct. Other, less expensive energy options are available to utilities and their customers, including wind power, natural gas, and solar power. These resources also produce less air and water pollution than coal.
“Plant Washington did not seem like a viable proposal to start with, and it certainly doesn’t seem viable now as we see coal use plummet across the country and operating costs increase,” said Katherine Helms Cummings, director of Fall-line Alliance for a Clean Environment. “This proposal has never made sense for the people of Washington County, who have significant concerns about how the air pollution would affect our health and whether we would be duped into paying higher rates to prop up the plant.”
“Carbon pollution is the leading contributor to climate disruption and is linked to life-threatening air pollution, like the smog that triggers asthma attacks,” said Seth Gunning, Beyond Coal organizer with the Sierra Club. “Plant Washington’s developers tried to avoid life-saving Clean Air Act protections from the beginning, and we worked to protect Georgians from its out of control pollution. Today’s carbon pollution protections will help us clean up and modernize the way we power Georgia. Plant Washington will have to clean up or hang it up.”
Local concerns about Plant Washington have grown with news of excess energy capacity in Georgia and struggling coal plants across the country as markets turn to cleaner, cheaper options. Recent high-profile examples of doomed new plants include the Longview Power Plant in Maidsville, West Virginia, which began operations in December 2011 and filed for bankruptcy last month, and the Prairie State Energy Campus, an Illinois coal plant constructed in 2007 that has resulted in 51 percent higher power rates for the communities that invested in it.
“Cleaner sources of energy like wind and solar are the future of our country’s energy supply, so communities around the nation that invest in coal are struggling as it becomes increasingly uncompetitive,” said Amelia Shenstone of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “The safeguards announced today reinforce the imprudence of continued spending to build an outdated coal plant.”
In addition to the economic consequences, Plant Washington raises deep concerns over the anticipated air pollution and the impact on local water resources. Mercury from the plant would pollute the Ogeechee River, which is already so polluted with mercury that the state health department limits the amount of fish that should be eaten, and the plant would consume about 13.5 million gallons of water a day from the Oconee River, at a time when the entire state of Georgia is struggling with limited water resources and projected future drought scenarios.
“Moving forward with this misguided and unneeded plant could have terrible consequences for the residents of Washington County,” said Emily Markesteyn, Executive Director and Riverkeeper of Ogeechee Riverkeeper. “We would bear the economic risk of paying for a plant that can’t compete on the market, and most importantly we would bear the tremendous health and environmental risks of housing a highly polluting plant in our community.”
The alliance fought loose permitting terms that would have allowed the plant to produce illegal and dangerous levels of toxic mercury pollution, and secured cancelation of Power4Georgians’ second coal plant proposal in Ben Hill County. That agreement ensured that Plant Washington, if built, would dramatically reduce those emissions beyond what was originally proposed and protected the Ben Hill County plant site for conservation purposes. Led by members of utility cooperatives, the alliance also challenged Power4Georgians’ funding source, and as a result protected more than one million Georgians from rate hikes to pay for the plant.