April 14, 2009

Proposed Pee Dee Plant Headed to Court

From today's The State. More coverage can be read in the Post and Courier, the Florence Morning News, and Environment News Service.

Groups appeal coal plant permit
Conservationists challenge approval of utility’s proposed energy facility
Tuesday, Apr 14, 2009

Conservation groups announced Monday they are appealing an air pollution permit for Santee Cooper’s proposed $2.2 billion coal-fired power plant in Florence County.

The legal challenge, filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center for environmentalists, is the latest in a series of hurdles the state-owned utility must clear before it can build the facility along the Great Pee Dee River.

Santee Cooper still needs a string of other environmental permits, including a major federal wetlands permit, state water quality approval and state permits to build a landfill and ash ponds at the site. A federal environmental impact statement, which DHEC chose not to wait on before issuing the permits, also is due out soon and is subject to legal challenge. Those permits and studies could take years to resolve.

Laura Varn, a spokeswoman for Santee Cooper, said the utility expected the legal challenge. But the company needs the plant to produce power, she said.

Santee Cooper, which serves about half the state’s residents, says the facility will be state-of-the-art in controlling pollution. The company hopes to have the plant up and running in 2014, but challenges could delay that.

“We are committed to moving forward as we focus on our balanced solution to meeting the state’s energy needs in an affordable and reliable way,” Varn said.

Conservationists said state regulators didn’t conduct proper studies to see how the plant would affect eastern South Carolina’s environment. The Department of Health and Environmental Control’s decision to approve the permit violates the federal Clean Air Act by authorizing large amounts of pollution, conservation groups claim.

Those appealing the DHEC board’s decision are the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, the Sierra Club, the S.C. Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund and the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.

It was not known when a state administrative law judge will hear the appeal.

DHEC’s seven-member board approved the air permit Feb. 12 after saying the utility had met all legal requirements. Department spokesman Thom Berry said the agency doesn’t comment on ongoing legal matters.

In the past two years, criticism of Santee Cooper’s plant has intensified amid a chorus of national opposition to new coal-fired power plants. Gov. Mark Sanford announced in February he opposes the plant, saying there is not enough demand for the power in slow economic times.

Carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants contributes to global warming. In this case, the plant would release about 10 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. But DHEC, saying it needed guidance from the federal government, did not require any controls on carbon dioxide in the permit it issued to Santee Cooper this year.

The facility also will release mercury and tiny soot particles, which can lodge in people’s lungs and make them sick. The DHEC board’s decision will allow 92 pounds of mercury annually to be released along a river full of fish that already have been polluted by the toxic metal, which is believed to be from industrial sources.

“This plant would add mercury pollution to an already contaminated region ... but DHEC waived the maximum mercury controls required by law,” said Blan Holman, an attorney representing the five groups.

The plant will be along the banks of the Great Pee Dee River near the communities of Kingsburg and Pamplico in Florence County.

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