First the politicians spoke, Virginia State Senator Phillip Puck, Delegate Terry Kilgore and local Wise County officials among them, offering bland platitudes on economic growth and construction jobs—real concerns to be sure in a place like Wise County, where jobs have become scarce. Then Matthew Sutherland, a resident of Wise County whose family has been in the mountains for 300 years, sat down in front of the microphone to speak to the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) about Dominion Power’s proposed $1.6 billion coal-fired power plant set to be built near his home.
John Cruickshank, the chair of the local Sierra Club, was one of scores of speakers who cautioned the State Corporation Commission against approving a coal power plant in Wise County.
“This amounts to a conspiracy to kill our children,” said Matthews, whose mother and father died two years ago from heart and lung disease. “This is not about people. This is about money. That’s all I can say.”
Matthews choked back tears as he spoke in front of a crowd that filled the courtroom and overflowed into a separate space set up to televise the proceedings. On a January day with temperatures in the 70s, 176 people signed up to speak at the SCC public hearing. While there was support for the plant, mostly from local government officials and people with ties to the business community, the vast majority of speakers opposed Dominion’s construction of the plant in Wise County.
The Virginia Air Pollution Control Board estimated that the plant would annually pump 25 million pounds of pollutants into the region’s air. Tom Cormons, the Virginia Campaign Organizer for Appalachian Voices, says that by Dominion’s own estimates, the new plant—which it touts as clean—would be among the state’s top 10 air polluters and would add 5.3 million tons of carbon dioxide to the air each year, the equivalent of adding a million cars to the road.
“This is a step in exactly the wrong direction,” says Cormons.
The public hearing lasted more than nine hours. Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris made the trip to Richmond to speak in opposition to the plant, as did about 10 Charlottesville-area residents, including John Cruickshank and Peter Kleeman.
Norris signed up to speak in the morning, but the volume of speakers pushed the hearing on throughout the day and into the evening. Norris wanted to present the recent city resolution that calls for the state to place a moratorium on new coal-fired plants and invest those resources in sustainable energy production.
“I’m not convinced that increased emphasis on conservation, efficiency and renewables isn’t a viable alternative,” says Norris. “It’s only in the last few months, frankly, that Dominion has gotten serious—and I’m not even sure that they’re real serious—about development of renewables and conservation.”
Brian Buckley, a Charlottesville resident and Piedmont Virginia Community College student, spent the day in Richmond, waiting over eight hours for his turn to speak. When it came, he too voiced his opposition to the plant.
“It just seems like if that many people cared enough to come this far and spent all that time and effort, I just don’t see how people could not take that into consideration,” he says. “Let’s face it. These are human lives at stake. I don’t know what else you need to take into consideration other than that.”
Correction January 21, 2008:
The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the SCC’s decision on the plant wasn’t expected for at least two weeks. This statement has been removed.
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