May 17, 2009

Do you want a coal-burning plant 15 miles away?

updated September 17, 2009

I figure that most of you have already heard about this proposed Cypress Creek power plant across the James River in Surry County, and my two cents is long overdue. The Williamsburg Climate Action Network has been on top of it for quite some time.

Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC) is proposing possibly the largest coal-burning power plant in Virginia--in the small town of Dendron (about 300 residents). This future coal-burning power plant would produce 1500 megawatts by 2017. That's very generous of the Dendron residents to provide power to possibly the most heavily populated areas in Virginia, as in Northern Virginia!

America is not ready to quit coal, even though approximately 600 coal-fired power plants in the US produce about one-third of our country's toal carbon emissions. But there is good news for those of us who worry about respiratory problems. In the last few years, plans for 83 plants in the United States have either been voluntarily withdrawn or denied permits by state regulators. Unfortunately, Virginia is not yet on that list.

The Williamsburg area is only 15 miles downwind. Yes, downwind. What do you know about coal plant emissions?

For starters, "clean coal" is definitely an oxymoron and does NOT YET EXIST. It's still in the research and development stage, as scientists try to figure out a way to safely sequester (that's "put in timeout") the 14.6 million TONS of carbon dioxide per year that this proposed plant will emit. ODEC says Surry's soil and bedrock are inadequate for holding the carbon. Archer Daniel Midlands Co. is injecting liquid carbon dioxide (from a corn mill) into the ground in Illinois in an $84 million test project as I write. This project will stop in 2013 when they'll monitor for potential leaks. See why this sequestration is not just around the corner?

Even climate change skeptics must see that carbon dioxide emissions are not a good thing--whether you think that's it's contributing to a warmer planet or not. $6 billion for this plant could go a long way toward renewable wind or solar energy too.

Then there's the madhatter stuff of mercury. Most emissions of mercury from power plants fall within 75 miles (yes, Old Dominion website states that there will be 118 pounds of mercury per year from this plant). Only 1/70 of a teaspoon (I can't measure that in my teaspoon) in a 25-acre lake makes the fish unsafe to eat.

The prevailing winds from this plant will drop the mercury, lead, and soot in our area. As a boatowner who used to keep our sailboat in Sarah's Creek off the York River, I can attest to the fact that "particulate matter" (some sort of soot) quite regularly decorated our cockpit. Was it from the coal-burning plant in York county or from the oil refinery? I'll never know for sure.

We already have 3 of the 4 largest coal plants in Virginia in our area. The emissions from the Yorktown plant waft (such a gentle term!) into Williamsburg's air when the prevailing winds reverse. So we get it from both directions!

Some opponents, including the Coalition to Keep Surry Clean and Sierra Club, also worry that digging coal for the Cypress Creek plant could involve mountaintop-removal mining (MTR), which is just what the name describes, then leaving the rocks and earth in nearby streams. Now comes word that EPA is set to approve 42 out of 48 MTR permits--more than were approved during the entire Bush administration. That' a lot of flattened Appalachian peaks and muddy creeks.

I'll deal with the byproduct of fly ash another time. That's a topic unto itself!

WHAT CAN YOU DO? (updated 9-17-09) Dendron city council members just voted 4 to3 to hand over review of this proposal to their county planning commission. Perhaps the Surry County Planning Commission members should hear from downwind folks, in addition to their own residents. Commission Director is Rhonda Russell Mack, P. O. Box 357Surry, Virginia 23883; Phone: (757) 294-5210; E-mail:

Surry County will get a huge amount of money if this plant is built, and they need all the support they can get to make the hard decision of saying "Thanks, but no thanks." The promised jobs usually don't go the local folks either. Many are automated. If only the plant could be approved based on a "clean coal" MANDATE. That is the only kind of incentive that might motivate the researchers trying to develop clean coal technology.

Richmond Times-Dispatch quotes C. David Hudgins, ODEC's director of external relations, saying that a lot of the opposition boils down to "global warming, killing polar bears, the earth is dying. . . I'm kind of worried about the retired guy being able to afford his oxygen machine."

WOW! I'm worried about the retired guy's grand-daughter and her daughter.

If you seek more information, visit the Wise Energy for Virginia website at or :

All you wanted to know about coal in Virginia:

The major coal fields in western Virginia were not developed until the railroads arrived in the 1880s. The value of Virginia coal depends upon its quality, measured in British Thermal Units; cost of extraction; and distance from final market. Today, the coal in Virginia that is economical to mine is concentrated in the mountainous southwestern region.

Virginia's bituminous coal is "steam coal," used primarily for generating energy. Even low-quality coal, with a high sulfur content and buried deep underground, might be worth the high cost of underground mining if transportation costs were low - and that would be possible if there was a power plant located near the mouth of the mine. However, there are few power plants located next to Virginia mines, in part because there is little water for cooling the boilers in such plants.

Construction has already begun on the most-recently approved coal-burning power plant (#10) in Virginia--in Wise County in southwest Virginia. That one will also burn plant matter and "gob," a kind of mine waste made of rock and coal that is piled around the mining districts of southwest Virginia.

An insert in our Dominion power bill proudly announced this Wise plant as a "585-megawatt clean-coal power station" that will take 4 years to build. Closer reading of that promotional brochure included a sentence that stretched the truth: "The new station also would allow for the underground capture of carbon dioxide when the technology is available." Do they really expect folks to believe that? It's kinda like stating, "My new car will get 100 miles per gallon when that new magic fuel is available."

Background info from EPA website:

Nitrogen Oxide causes a variety of health and environmental impacts, such as ground-level ozone, acid rain, particulate matter (PM), global warming, water quality deterioration, and visual impairment. NOx plays a major role, with VOCs, in the atmospheric reactions that produce ozone. NOx forms when fuel is burned at high temperatures. The two major emissions sources are transportation and stationary fuel combustion sources such as electric utility and industrial boilers.

High concentrations of sulfur dioxide affect breathing and may aggravate existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Sensitive populations include asthmatics, individuals with bronchitis or emphysema, children and the elderly. SO2 is also a primary contributor to acid deposition, or acid rain.