Monday, March 24, 2008

Sun News Says No to a Coal Plant w/ No Mercury Controls

Long touted as "one of the cleanest coal plants in the country," the Pee Dee "Energy Campus" is finally coming back to earth. Yes, Earth, a planet on which thousands of pounds of mercury pollution are NOT considered clean. And a planet where the U.S. court system is finally making EPA and the utilities they regulate do something to control these mercury emissions.

Kudos to the Myrtle Beach Sun News for noting Santee Cooper's return from orbit, and for pointing out the utility's responsibility to stay on terra firma from here on out.

For a true grounding, however, we need to consider if a coal plant is even necessary if our state utility would do more with renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Reducing mercury in rivers worth higher electric rates

In response to government and interest-group pressure, Santee Cooper agreed last week to study how much mercury its proposed Florence County coal-fired power plant would produce. Good.

Mercury, a heavy metal neurotoxin, is an inevitable byproduct of coal-burning. Even trace amounts of can cause brain damage, especially in small children.

The existing plan for the $1 billion plant envisions emissions of about 100 pounds of mercury per year. For this, leaders of the state-owned utility have a weak defense: Because the Pee Dee River (along which the plant would sit) and other rivers are already polluted with mercury from other sources, emissions from the plant would make matters no worse.

The utility's view of the mercury situation was consistent with the Bush administration's lax interpretation of the U.S. Clean Air Act. For a while, it looked as though this thinking might be enough to persuade the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to issue an air permit for the plant.

Then last month came a federal court ruling that effectively shot down the administration's twisted logic on mercury emissions. All new coal-fired plants, said the court, must meet the strict standards of the law. That decision threw a roadblock into Santee Cooper's path toward DHEC air-permit approval.

There ensued a spirited effort by S.C. conservation groups to bend the utility to the perceived will of the federal court decision. And after it became clear that the decision posed a threat to swift DHEC approval of its air permit, Santee Cooper last week ordered a maximum-achievable-control-technology analysis - in effect, a new environmental impact study. The MACT study will determine whether Santee Cooper should modify its power-plant plans to include more equipment to further reduce emissions of mercury and other pollutants.

Ever since Santee Cooper proposed the plant, Chief Executive Lonnie Carter has pledged that the plant, called the Pee Dee Energy Campus, would include the best emissions-control equipment available. So if the MACT analysis shows pollution-control deficiencies in the current plans for the plant, Carter will surely ask the Santee Cooper board to approve a pollution-control upgrade and alter the plans accordingly.

Such an upgrade would likely increase the cost of the plant. And that, in turn, could result in higher rates for business, industrial and residential customers who use Santee Cooper power. That population includes direct service to residents of the
utility's service area - Horry, Georgetown and Berkeley counties - and indirect service to electric-cooperative customers statewide.

Conservation groups insist otherwise, but there seems little doubt that the plant is a necessity. Growth in our part of the world is strong and will continue. Carter makes a persuasive case that strict conservation measures alone can't "create" enough spare power to make construction of new generating capacity unnecessary.

If it's possible for Santee Cooper to build a cleaner plant at higher cost, then
ratepayers should gladly pay higher rates to support its construction. As the utility effectively recognized in knuckling under to a MACT analysis, promising to increase toxic pollution only a little bit no longer cuts it. Even as we heat and cool our houses, heat our bath water, light our houses, boot up our computers and crank up our home theaters, we should resolve to decrease power-plant pollution to the greatest extent possible.

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