Dominion’s $1.8 Billion Plant in Appalachian Mountains Likely to Bring More Devastation to Region

Jun 27, 2008
Author: SCP Editor

June 27, 2008 – In what can only be seen as bad news for all of us, the country’s number 2 utility company was approved to build a $1.8 billion plant in Virginia’s Appalachian mountains this week. This will increase the use of what is called “mountaintop mining” for coal, a process that literally removes the tops of mountains to reach the coal inside. The process is only controversial from the perspective that so many dollars have been poured in by the lobbies to put lipstick on this pig. The fact is that the process devastates the land, the communities and families that live in the backyards of these projects.

Here is how it works:

The targeted land is clear-cut and typically sold for lumber. Then explosives are used to blast away the “overburden”, the rock and subsoil that sits on top of the coal seam, to expose the coal. The overburden gets pushed into a nearby valley or hollow, which creates a fill. The excavator removes the coal for transportation, cleaning and processing. The millions of gallons of waste from the coal processing is called sludge, or slurry, and is typically stored in open pools somewhere in the valley, held back by quickly constructed dams. When the coal removal is finished, the mining company replaces the topsoil on the stripped site and seeds it for revegetation.

The fact is that coal production and its contribution to the grid is not going away. It is a dirty, but extremely cheap way of producing energy and millions, if not billions of dollars are being invested in the form of clean technologies to develop and commercialize ways to reduce the dirtiness and negative environmental impact on the process. Advocates call this “clean coal” technology, but it is probably more factual to call it “less dirty” coal technology. We are advocates of these emerging technologies and write about several companies that are producing NOx and other emission reducing solutuions  for the coal-fire plant industry, like Fuel-Tek (Nasdaq:FTEK). So we accept that coal production and consumption will be with us for the foreseeable future.

But we reject the notion that processes like mountaintop mining need to be used, or at least until they have been amended to be less damaging to the environment, communities and the people who live in the backyards of where these projects are underway. It is simply devastating, and under the Bush administration, the EPA and other protection agencies that should be overseeing the process have been turned on their heads.

In the U.S. mountaintop mining is sanctioned under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, where appropriate waivers can be granted to mining companies for mountaintop mining. On numerous occasions, federal courts have ruled that the US Army Corps of Engineering has violated the Clean Water Act through the issuance of these permits. Massey Energy Company (NYSE:MEE) is appealing a 2007 ruling, but is being allowed to continue mining while the appeal is under way because “most of the substantial harm as already occurred.” The Bush administration has appealed one of the rulings because the Act didn’t explicitly define “fill material” that could legally be placed in a waterway. The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers has changed rules to include mining debris in the definition of fill material, in order to overturn a ruling.

So Dominion Power is set to break ground on a 585MW plant in coal country, Virginia. Helping to move the process along have been pressures that the entire country is facing with rising energy prices. The Dominion plant is estimated to add the carbon equivalent of 900,000 cards to Virginia roads. If there is an upside, it is that the pollution control board is imposing relatively stricter conditions, where its preferred sulfur emissions cap will be cut by 80%, its mercury emissions cap by 90%.

Unfortunately, this does nothing for what looks like will be an increase in mountaintop removal caused by the plant. Republican Lamar Alexander commented that “The end result is a proposal for the outright exemption of valley fills from [existing environmental law].”

The economic argument for the plant is also nonexistent. State regulators reported that for every $1 of revenue collected in the course of building the Dominion plant, Virginia’s overall economy will lose $1.36. And an estimated 1,476 jobs will be lost due to anticipated rate increases that are a byproduct of the cost of the plant.



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