Dominion stokes the coal industry, but says it's a friend to the environment

It’s a dim, drizzly afternoon, and I’m riding around Wise County with Kathy and Gary Selvage. I can see what they’re pointing out—evidence of surface mining—but I can’t see it the way they do. 


Dogged by controversy: How Dominion’s shiny green image gets tarnished

The Selvages have lived here for decades, and they have seen coal mining literally change the relationship of sky to land. As we climb a winding road, Gary talks about what this spot was like before the mines. “It was forest. It was wild country,” he says. “We came up here with my dad when I was a kid to hunt.”
Now, Wise County—with something like a quarter of its surface area already mined—is an awkward mix of wild mountain beauty and manmade chaos.
From inside the Selvages’ car, mountainsides seem to tumble around us, punctuated by lumpy, squarish forms nearly as tall as the mountains themselves. “See, all this is fill,” says Gary, pointing at mostly bare ground shaped into a bleak, uniform slope. “You can see the difference in the soil. They keep building it up. They spray it and put a couple pines on it.”
The graceful ridgelines have been reshaped, flattened, blasted away. There are areas where the mountains are rearranged by mining for four miles or more as the crow flies. There are weird, bright-green ponds in the hollows below hairpin turns. There are NO TRESPASSING signs at the bottoms of cruelly steep dirt roads. 
But the Selvages don’t need to drive to see mine sites. Right across the road from their home, a company called Glamorgan Properties began removing a mountaintop in 2003. Living with the sirens, blasting, and dust made an activist out of Kathy. She became furious about the lost topsoil, buried streams and clouds of material thrown up from deep in the earth after explosions. She worried about mercury and arsenic in those clouds, drifting over the community and falling into her garden. “There’s a constant mental strife,” she says. “It’s like living in a war zone.”

In mountaintop removal mining, coal companies grub all vegetation before blasting soil and rock off ridges and pushing it into nearby valleys, burying streams. By 2006, the practice had destroyed at least 450 mountains and summits throughout Appalachia. 

Glamorgan went bankrupt and pulled out of the site in 2005. Now, the area is partially reclaimed. It looks like a series of improbably tall, conical hills covered with sparse vegetation, more sci-fi than planet Earth, a place no one would want to walk. Orange water collects in a low place below these hills, an indication, Kathy says, of acid mine drainage—elevated amounts of heavy metals. 
This moonscape sits within shouting distance of the Selvages’ house and many other homes, and right behind a little Baptist church, but Kathy says her neighbors have been reluctant to speak up about their altered views, the blasting that rocked their houses, the lights that kept them up all night. Everyone’s got some connection to the industry, she says. “This church over here, the preacher worked on a strip job. He was preaching on Sunday and blowing mountains up on Monday,” Gary says, laughing. 

Kathy and other activists did manage to get Glamorgan to remove its tipples, prep plant and scales from the site. But they can’t put the land back the way it was. The only reason they can drive partway up the gravel road to look at what they lost is that an old cemetery still sits up here, surrounded by destruction, but itself untouched. Perhaps, legally, the dead are harder to disturb than the living. 

A sharper image

Against this backdrop, it would be hard to call any company that purchases coal a “green business.” But the backdrop is often obscured. Take Dominion Resources, the Richmond-based utility and the major supplier of energy to Charlottesville. Its five largest Virginia coal plants burn more than 21,000 tons of coal per day. While Dominion is not directly in the mining business, it is intimately connected to that industry. 

Lately, though, your average person might have gotten the idea that Dominion is as eco-friendly as the natural foods store around the corner. This notion pops up in all kinds of places. 

On January 28, for example, the Hampton Roads TV station WAVY posted a story on its website about energy efficiency. The tagline: “Mike McCoy has a hard time keeping his house warm, so Dominion Virginia Power came over to help.”

The story, which also aired on the channel itself, describes Dominion technicians putting insulation under McCoy’s floor, and advising the Navy veteran (“who’s fallen on tough times”) about sealing windows and doors. 

Two months earlier, UVA’s website mentioned Dominion in its press release about the 2009 Lighting of the Lawn ceremony. “Dominion Virginia Power donated environmentally friendly LED lights last year. The bulbs require less energy and have a longer lifespan than the incandescent lights previously used.” 

Meanwhile, a news item on the website of the Southeastern Connecticut branch of Habitat for Humanity praised Dominion for partnering in the construction of a LEED-certified house: “With energy efficiency and conservation a central part of this build, it makes for a nice synergy that Dominion is the lead supporter of this Habitat project.”

Dominion’s Green Power program, through which customers can volunteer to pay more for renewably generated power, has been mentioned dozens if not hundreds of time in local and national media. The company even publishes an energy conservation blog,, on which Dominion staffers give tips about no-bake recipes and the proper operating temperature for a fridge.

Through a raft of programs, donations, and initiatives, Dominion steadily works to green its image. Aided by a willing media, it links its name to conservation, efficiency, and green innovation. Here in Charlottesville, it made a splash last summer by launching a system upgrade called Smartgrid, designed to increase efficiency through high-tech metering. In November, it got a burst of positive press for a “GreenTech incubator” it is founding in Ashland, meant to nurture clean technology businesses. 

But Dominion is not exactly a green business. Last year, in its green rankings of the nation’s 500 largest corporations, Newsweek put Dominion Resources at number 481; out of 37 utility companies, it ranked 25. Its environmental impact score was just 3.3 out of a possible 100.

In the big picture, media-friendly green programs represent a small fraction of Dominion’s actual impact. The company is one of the biggest utilities in the U.S., distributing energy to 12 states, employing 18,000 people and claiming $15.1 billion in revenue in 2009. Its reach extends from the Kewaunee Power Station, a nuclear plant in Wisconsin, to oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. And among environmentalists, Dominion is hardly a shining example of corporate responsibility. 

Planting dissent

Ask Kathy Selvage her opinion of Dominion, and a steely anger creeps into her otherwise warm demeanor. “I think we have to think about the word dominion,” she says. “It means to rule over others. It’s interesting they’ve chosen that. If Dominion had wanted to do something beneficial for southwest Virginia and energy policy, they would have pushed for green energy production.”

A coal miner’s daughter, Kathy Selvage now leads citizen opposition to surface mining. “In decades past, we didn’t know [about the ill effects of coal]. Now that we have the knowledge, we have to embrace it.”

Selvage is vice president of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS), which is based in southwestern Virginia’s Wise County and opposes mountaintop removal mining. SAMS also fought Dominion’s most high-profile current project—a brand-new, 585-megawatt coal-fired power plant in eastern Wise County, about 23 miles from the Selvages’ house. The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, currently a busy hive of construction activity, should be finished in mid-2012.

Though Dominion can’t say how much Virginia City coal will come from southwest Virginia, company spokesman Greg Edwards says that all the coal will arrive by truck, meaning it will likely be unaffordable to source coal from further away.

Since it was proposed in 2005, the plant has been a focus of concern and opposition for environmentalists, spawning the creation of the Wise Energy for Virginia Coalition, of which SAMS is a member. Another member—Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center—has mounted a series of legal challenges to the air permits Dominion secured for the proposed plant from the state Air Pollution Control Board. One permit initially allowed the plant to emit 72 pounds of mercury per year. “That doesn’t sound like a lot,” says Cale Jaffe, an SELC attorney on the case, “but as a neurotoxin, mercury is dangerous even in minute concentrations.” 

The plant’s mercury emissions will now be limited to less than five pounds per year—“the strongest [limit] in the nation, bar none,” says Jaffe. But SELC is still fighting another of the permits, which regulates conventional pollutants. Under the Clean Air Act, Jaffe believes, carbon dioxide should be limited along with other toxic emissions. “We are long past the day when we can pretend [CO2] is not part of the problem,” Jaffe says. “You build a new coal plant, and it’s online 50 or 60 years, you’re locking us into 50 or 60 more years of global warming emissions.”

Reasonable limits?

The question of carbon emissions at Virginia City is a peculiar one. In 2008, the State Corporation Commission denied Dominion’s argument that the plant should be considered “carbon capture compatible.” (Carbon capture technology, often mentioned as a solution to global warming emissions at coal plants, is still in development, and many critics doubt it can be implemented without huge rate hikes.) SELC’s website quotes SCC staff: “It is the Company’s position in this case that the proposed plant is compatible with technology that is, by its own admission, not commercially available or even feasible at this time. In the Staff’s view, this is not logical.” The commission approved the plant instead as a “conventional coal” facility.

Dominion spokesman Greg Edwards, shown here with the half-built Virginia City coal plant, says that most southwest Virginia residents support the project.

Jaffe cites an MIT study when he asserts that Virginia City’s design will make it economically unfeasible for Dominion to install carbon capture technology there, if and when it becomes available. But Dominion insists that it will go forward with the addition. “We are committed to installing carbon capture technology at that plant,” says Edwards. “Once it’s commercially available and the technology’s proven, we would say that we will install that on this facility. The land is set aside for that piece of the plant.”

As currently permitted, the plant will emit more than 5 million tons of carbon per year. “At this stage, we want to make sure the reality of what gets built matches Dominion’s green rhetoric,” Jaffe says. “They’ve talked about doing a [carbon capture] demonstration project”—a partnership with Virginia Tech for which Dominion unsuccessfully applied for grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy—“but they haven’t done anything to capture carbon at the plant.”

Tom Cormons, director of the Virginia chapter of Appalachian Voices, regrets the prospect of any emissions at Virginia City, even legal ones. “Air emissions are dangerous even if they’re within limits,” he says. “Dominion touted [this plant] as ‘clean coal.’ The fact is that all they’re doing is complying with the minimum requirements of the law.”

But Cormons’ organization is concerned about Dominion’s ability even to comply with those minimums, if it burns waste coal in addition to high-quality coal. (The “hybrid” in the plant’s name refers to its ability to burn waste coal and biomass—essentially, waste wood from nearby logging operations.) Waste coal results in dirtier emissions, including higher mercury emissions. 

“We hope to be able to burn waste coal,” says Edwards. “[It would] help clean up waste coal piles scattered around the coalfields that have been left here for decades.” He could not provide information on what portion of the fuel for Virginia City might consist of waste coal, but insists that in terms of pollutants, “We expect to meet our permit limit.”

Bigger questions

No one disputes that this coal plant will in fact be cleaner than its decades-old brethren. The real point, say opponents, is whether Dominion’s investment in coal is the right thing to do at this moment in history.

Cale Jaffe and other SELC attorneys are glad they got Dominion’s mercury emissions limits at Virginia City lowered by 93 percent, but Jaffe argues that Dominion should have invested in efficiency rather than coal. “It’s out there waiting for Dominion to harvest.”

The Virginia City plant represents a $1.8 billion investment by Dominion—a move the company says is necessary given rising demand for electricity. “The first investment Dominion should have made was energy efficiency,” says Cormons. He points to a study by Abt Associates, commissioned by the Wise Energy Coalition, which found that efficiency measures would cost Dominion $35-60/megawatt-Hour—compared with the $100/MWh cost of building and running the Virginia City plant—and that efficiency measures would be substantially better for Virginia’s Gross State Product and employment picture.   

Jaffe agrees. “We’re saying you can look at efficiency as a resource in its own right,” he says, referring to programs such as home weatherizations and customer incentives for high-efficiency appliances. “It’s out there waiting for Dominion to harvest.”

Dominion does have a docket of 12 energy efficiency programs before the SCC right now. This is a response to a new state law, championed by SELC and Appalachian Voices, giving utilities incentives to invest in efficiency. For its part, Dominion says that efficiency alone would not meet rising demand. “We believe it’s going to take conventional power stations, renewable energy, our customers partnering with us, and energy-efficiency programs to be a company providing reliable energy,” says Dominion spokesman Jim Norvelle. 

But critics still say the company could make better choices. “[They should] ask their engineers, ‘How can we get 585 megawatts out of efficiency [instead of from a new coal plant]?’” says Jaffe.

At the moment, Dominion’s total investments in conservation and renewables add up to something like $828 million (since the company won’t release financial information about its wind energy partnerships, industry averages make up part of that figure). That is less than half of its $1.8 billion investment in the Virginia City plant alone.

“They should have looked at the diminishing supply of coal, southwest Virginia’s history, and said ‘Coal is not the wave of the next 50 years,’” says Selvage. “In decades past, we didn’t know [about the ill effects of coal]. Now that we have the knowledge, we have to embrace it. Dominion could have chosen to be the right kind of leader.” 

Depends who you ask

Now about half completed, the Virginia City plant is all but a done deal. But through the process of challenging Dominion’s Virginia City plans, opponents did score a few victories. Dominion agreed to convert its Bremo Power Station in Fluvanna from coal to natural gas, cutting yearly carbon emissions by 1.1 million tons. And it will partner with BP to produce wind energy in Tazewell County, also in southwestern Virginia—though it can’t yet say what the scope or timeline of that project might be. (A stumbling block arose on February 3 when Tazewell supervisors voted not to allow structures taller than 40 feet on ridgelines.)


Pollution at the next generation of coal plants in Virginia 

Dominion’s Virginia City power plant 

Capacity: 585 megawatts

Cost: $1.8 billion

Projected mercury emissions: 4.45 pounds/year

Mercury emissions projected before legal challenges: 72 pounds/year

Projected carbon emissions: 5 million tons/year


Old Dominion Electric Cooperative’s Surry County power plant 

Capacity: 1,500 megawatts

Cost: Up to $6 billion

Projected mercury emissions: 116 pounds/year

Projected carbon emissions: 14.6 million tons/year

Sources: Dominion Resources, Southern Environmental Law Center, Virginia Chapter Sierra Club


Just as with the carbon-capture issue, a sharp divide seems to exist between Dominion and its critics on almost every aspect of the truth. One example: Diana Withen lives in Wise, teaches high school and heads the Clinch Coalition, a watershed protection group. She points out that the Virginia City plant will remove 1 million gallons of water per day from the nearby Clinch River. Meanwhile, Dominion spokesman Edwards talks about the 90 percent reduction in water usage the plant will achieve compared to other plants of its size.

It comes down to point of view. If you believe new coal plants are necessary, you will tout their improvements over coal plants of the past. If not, you will point out that even new coal plants have deleterious effects.

That is exactly what 42,500 people were doing when they put their names on a Wise Energy Coalition petition opposing Virginia City. Nonetheless, Dominion maintains that it has solid community backing for the project. “The vast majority of the residents of southwest Virginia coalfields were supportive of the plant,” says Edwards. “I’m not sure the source of the [Coalition’s] signatures. There was some local opposition but it was a minority of folks. The vast majority of residents and the business community supported it.” Did the company conduct a poll to gather this information? “As far as scientific polls, I’m not aware of one.”

And despite all the bad press it’s gotten over Virginia City and a new 500-kilovolt power line it’s building through Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County, Dominion denies that it is specifically working to green its image. “I think [our green initiatives exist] because we’re responding to what American society and what our customers are asking us to do,” says Norvelle. “We’re certainly making customers aware of what we’re doing, but it is not a planned effort for this company to green up our image.”

Bri West, who helped coordinate the Piedmont Environmental Council’s opposition to TrAIL (the Loudoun power line), disagrees. “It’s our belief that they restarted their energy conservation program in response to bad PR over the TrAIL line and the Wise County coal plant,” she says. “They may never admit that’s why they did it. But [during the controversies], it was so easy to point out they had no real energy conservation program.”

“There was no link at all,” says Norvelle. He acknowledges that the conservation program had fizzled out in the ’90s, and blames this on lack of customer interest. It’s because of the recent shift to greener thinking in America, he says, that Dominion is now hyping conservation. “We began developing programs, like a lot of utilities, because our customers finally warmed to it.”

One such program is Dominion Green Power, through which electric customers can volunteer to pay extra on their utility bills to support the generation of renewable power. Dominion does not produce this power itself, and about half the cost to customers (most typically, $15 a month) covers administrative fees. 

The company is proud that, after the program’s first year, 6,000 customers in Virginia are now enrolled. This represents less than half of 1 percent of Dominion’s 2.3 million customers statewide. Despite the many times the program has earned the company positive press, it is essentially a sideshow. 

Small-town blues

That is not the case for coal-burning plants. As Dominion spokesman David Botkins says, “Coal is the predominant source of energy in this country.” As part of that predominant source, the Virginia City plant, located in the heart of Virginia’s coalfields, will directly support a mining industry that has, for decades, supplied residents with both jobs and misery. 

In recent years, as mountaintop removal techniques have become more widespread throughout Appalachia, the jobs have gotten scarcer. The misery hasn’t. 

As Botkins says, “Some people just don’t like coal.”

The day after my meeting with the Selvages, I ride with SAMS president Pete Ramey up to Roda, another little village in a hollow. A great-grandfather of seven, he lived here for more than four decades until, in 2004, he moved to nearby Big Stone Gap to escape the blasting and dust that had gravely altered Roda. “To look at this devastation year in and year out was a terrible thing,” he says. “We were fortunate and blessed that we could move.” Most of the people who are left in this cluster of little houses, he says, are “elderly and sick, and they’ve given up. Nobody cares about these people.” 

We talk in Ramey’s car, facing a blown-up mountain, while rain patters the windshield. “About one-third of the community used to be up that hollow,” he says, pointing past the NO TRESPASSING signs. “Then the coal mines went in.” A couple of coal trucks barrel past us on the narrow, curving road, their wheels muddy with mine-generated dust. That dust, including heavy metals, gets inside the houses and lungs of neighbors, Ramey says. 

Ramey understands miners’ concerns. He worked in underground mines himself for 37 years. But he believes there must be a way to keep people working without chewing up the land. “When I worked in mines, renewables were a myth,” he says. “Today it’s real. To get people to change over, that’s the problem.”

The dilemma of people in Wise County—23 percent of whom live below the poverty line—is truly infernal. Mining provides jobs they can’t do without. But mining destroys the place where they live. In Stephens, all the wells and springs have been lost, and people pay for municipal water. That water comes from the Clinch River, itself in close proximity to the Virginia City plant. “If something goes afoul,” says Selvage, “Wise County has lost its source of water.”

In the high school in Coeburn, Diana Withen leads the student ecology club. The kids do fine starting recycling programs and planting rain gardens, but if they venture into sensitive territory—the mining and burning of coal—they soon encounter friction. “We tried to get people to sign a petition against the power plant,” Withen says. “[The students] came back and said ‘We better not do this.’” In a community where the coal industry sponsors Coal Appreciation Days in public schools—complete with free t-shirts and cash prizes for students and teachers—kids learn the prevailing view early in life.

Growing movement

Dominion is not directly in the business of coal mining, but its Virginia City plant will feed the economic forces that shape the land and society in southwest Virginia and throughout Appalachia. And the plant has also galvanized opponents who, though they didn’t manage to stop it from being built, are now tackling a much larger proposed plant in Surry County, near Norfolk. 

“Dominion touted [this plant] as ‘clean coal,’” says Tom Cormons of Appalachian Voices. But, "all they’re doing is complying with the minimum requirements of the law.”

The Cypress Creek Power Station, proposed in Dendron by Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, would release 116 pounds of mercury per year, compared to less than five pounds at Virginia City. Its yearly carbon emissions would top 14 million tons. Though Surry’s Board of Supervisors and the Dendron City Council have both approved the plant, ODEC still faces a litany of state and federal hurdles. Cormons is hopeful that it can be stopped.

“The silver lining [of the Virginia City plant] is that we’ve catalyzed a movement toward a different energy future,” Cormons says. “There’s a lot of momentum going into Surry.”

Jaffe hopes that SELC’s Virginia City cases can serve as precedents. “We think Dominion went down the wrong road in pursuing the Wise County power plant. We want to make sure ODEC doesn’t follow them down that same backward path.”

Selvage agrees. A coal miner’s daughter, she takes a broad view and sees change on the way. It’s remarkable, she says, that SAMS—an anti-mining group—even exists in coal country. If the country’s attitude toward coal is truly changing, a green image for Dominion will be more than icing on the cake. It will be a battle line.

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