Air, Water Issues Behind Legal Challenges to Georgia Coal Plants

ATLANTA, Georgia, May 10, 2010 (ENS) – Two conservation groups today filed petitions for hearings challenging approvals for two coal-fired power plants issued in April by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, EDP.

Friends of the Chattahoochee and the Sierra Club, represented by Greenlaw, object to construction of Longleaf Energy Station, the largest proposed coal-fired power plant in Georgia, and the smaller Plant Washington.

“These permits as issued will not adequately protect the air we breathe or the water we drink,” said GreenLaw Executive Director Justine Thompson. “The law requires, and Georgians deserve, air permits that are based on the most modern pollution controls. These permits contain flaws for pollutants that are known to be hazardous.”

The petitions object to the classification of the 1,200 megawatt Longleaf power plant in southwestern Georgia’s Early County as a “minor source” of pollution, while the other proposed coal-fired plant, the 850 megawatt Plant Washington in Sandersville, central Georgia, is classified as a major source.

Listing Longleaf as a minor source allows the power plant to avoid requirements that would ensure that the plant operates in compliance with the law. EPD also failed to allow the public to comment on this decision. Today, attorneys objected on both grounds.

EPD also granted Longleaf an extension on when it must begin construction, allowing the plant to be built with what the petitioners call “outdated technology.”

Longleaf is a project of New Jersey-based LS Power, which plans to sell power to the highest bidders, whether or not they are in Georgia, which means that the plant is not subject to regulation by the Public Service Commission, Greenlaw explains.

Plant Washington is a project of Power4Georgians, a company organized by Cobb Electrical Membership Corporation and four other EMCs.

“Coal is a dirty, dangerous business. From the mine to the smokestack, coal-fired power is outdated, risky, and unnecessary,” said Erin Glynn, conservation organizer for the Sierra Club in Georgia. “Innovative, clean ways of producing energy are economically feasible and Georgia has energy efficiency measures to meet the economic growth that we expect.”

In a separate legal action, public interest groups today filed challenges to three state water and air permits for the Plant Washington facility.

According to documents filed in the Office of State Administrative Hearings, Georgia EPD permits for Plant Washington would illegally degrade water resources for users and downstream communities along the Oconee River, and allow high levels of harmful pollutants into the air.

Oconee River at Dublin, Georgia (Photo by Dusty Roads)

The state air permit fails to set safe limits on harmful air pollutants that would be emitted by Plant Washington, including sulfuric acid mist and particulate matter. Particulate matter is linked to respiratory illnesses, heart disease and premature death. In 1998, the International Agency for Research into Cancer classified sulfuric acid mist as causing cancer in humans.

The state water withdrawal permit fails to set necessary limits on the amount of water the plant can take from the Oconee River for use at a proposed plant located in the Ogeechee River watershed. Without adequate limits, communities such as Dublin, area farms and other downstream users along the Oconee River would be left without sufficient water resources, the challengers allege.

The state water discharge permit fails to limit the temperature of heated wastewater discharged by the proposed plant into the Oconee River, changing the river’s ecology, depleting available oxygen in its waters, and harming fish and other wildlife that depend on the river system, the challenging groups warn.

In the challenges to the air permit, GreenLaw and the Southern Environmental Law Center are representing the Fall-line Alliance for a Clean Environment, Ogeechee Riverkeeper, Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter, and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

In the challenges to the water permits, GreenLaw and the Southern Environmental Law Center are representing the Altamaha Riverkeeper, the Fall-line Alliance for a Clean Environment, and Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter.

“Just how valuable our water resources are has been made clear to Georgians in past droughts and through the ongoing water wars,” said Brian Gist, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Yet in these permits for an unneeded coal plant the state has failed to adequately protect public waters crucial to local and downstream users and wildlife.”

“The Oconee River is already stressed with pollutants and chronic low flow conditions during times of even moderate drought,” according to Deborah Sheppard, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper. “The potential impacts on the river from the proposed water withdrawal and hot-water discharge can only increase these problems.”

When the permits were issued in April, Power4Georgians said they were the result of more than two years work by Power4Georgians’ development team to meet and exceed Georgia EPD’s “rigorous” air and water quality standards.

Although the air and water standards in Plant Washington’s draft permits, issued by EPD in August 2009, were acceptable under U.S. EPA guidelines, Power4Georgians continued to work to reduce emissions levels further while also developing an unprecedented water management strategy, the consortium said in a statement April 8.

“We made significant and positive changes in our application to make our permits among the very best, if not the best, in the country,” said Dean Alford, spokesman for Power4Georgians. “We responded to suggestions raised with regard to air and water and now have exceptional standards that far exceed the strictest federal regulations for protection of human health and the environment.”

When construction begins, Plant Washington is expected to take four years to build and will create up to 1,600 construction and skilled trades jobs. When complete, facility is expected to create between 120 and 130 new jobs onsite, and an additional 200 to 300 new secondary jobs in supporting businesses and industries. The plant will generate enough electricity to meet the annual needs of 500,000 to 700,000 Georgia homes.

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