Green Scene Blog: A power plant hangs in the balance

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Folks, this post is by Mike McCoy, with Appalachian Voices. He explains the history of the proposed ODEC coal-fired power plant, a major current fight for Virginia environmental groups.

In December 2008, the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC) proposed to build the largest coal plant in Virginia, across the river from Williamsburg in Surry County. It was to be 1,500 megawatts, in the small town of Dendron (pop. 272). With Surry County residents leading the way, and advocacy organizations like our Charlottesville-based Appalachian Voices and Southern Environmental Law Center backing them up, we have so far kept this project from moving ahead.

The regional opposition to the plant comes with good reason. In addition to adding to the demand for mountaintop removal coal, it has been predicted (using EPA approved methodologies) that this coal plant would cause serious health problems for those downwind over the course of its 60-year lifespan. Among other problems, analysts estimate that pollution from the plant would cause over 1,300 asthma ER visits and contribute to over 2,400 heart attacks and 200,000 lost workdays.

Locals were successful at delaying the initial local zoning approval for a year, but four out of seven members of the Dendron town council voted in early 2010 to approve the zoning. However, they rushed the process and failed to provide proper public notice, and a lawsuit from a local lawyer and blueberry farmer followed.

Over the last two years, during which ODEC tried to keep this suit from going to court, the opposition movement has grown significantly, with people from Richmond to Virginia Beach joining Surry County residents in the fight. The Town of Surry, Isle of Wight County and Southampton County have all come out opposed to the coal plant. Virginia Beach, Williamsburg and representative Bobby Scott have all officially expressed grave concern. Also opposed are the Norfolk-based Consortium for Infant and Child Health, The Virginia Asthma Coalition and the American Lung Association, as well as nearly every conservation organization in the region.

Recently, the judge ruled in favor of the blueberry farmer, and the Town of Dendron had to repeat the public hearing and vote for local zoning. Now, over three years after it proposed the plant, ODEC is just getting around to receiving local zoning approval – and the opposition just keeps growing. Of the more than 160 coal-fired power plant proposals that have been beaten across the country in the last few years, the vast majority had no opposition in the arena of local zoning. Most of those fights didn’t even begin until after local zoning was approved.

At previous public meetings, the members of the Dendron Town Council have failed to ask a single substantive question or to show anything but blind support for what could be the largest coal-fired power plant in the state. Also, at all five of the previous public hearings the predominantly local speakers have been overwhelmingly opposed to the plant. The meeting on March 5 was no different. Yet after the hearing the Dendron Town Council immediately began reading the motions from pre-printed scripts to approve the massive coal plant, which they did unanimously and without discussion.

So, after a three-year delay, ODEC has achieved their very first, very minor step toward permitting the plant. The broader opposition, already strong across Hampton Roads, just keeps gaining strength, and Appalachian Voices and our partners will ensure that this project never breaks ground. 

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