The 1,500 megawatt Cypress Creek Power Station would be the largest coal-fired power plant in Virginia and Old Dominion plans to build it in the miniscule town of Dendron - population about 300, total area 3.6 square miles. Dendron was a company town, built and run by the Surry Lumber Company, which closed in 1927.
About 150 people came to the meeting in the town's fire hall to have their say as Old Dominion, a not-for-profit power provider to 10 local electric cooperatives in Virginia, attempts to jump through the regulatory hoops on its path to building the Cypress Creek Power Station.
To disprove claims that all opponents are outsiders, local residents wore stickers saying "Surry County Local - NO COAL."
Most of the speakers at the Town Council meeting were against the proposed power plant, but Mayor Yvonne Pierce cast the tie-breaking votes to give the cooperative approval.
The Dendron Municipal Hall (Photo courtesy Dendron Historical Society)
The vote gives the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, as well as other state and federal agencies, the green light to begin environmental impact studies on the site, said Old Dominion spokesman Jeb Hockman.
The Surry County Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing Thursday for the part of the project that is outside the town limits.
After the vote opponents of the coal-fired power plant vowed to fight on.
Kayti Wingfield, campaign coordinator for the nonprofit Wise Energy for Virginia Coalition, said, "Our fight over the last year has helped inform a lot of citizens in Surry County and elsewhere about the dangers of this plant - 50-plus years of dirty air, poisoned waters and blown up mountains to dig out the coal, not to mention fueling climate change that will have dire impacts on Virginia."
Oppponents say that Cypress Creek would emit more than 20,000 tons of air pollutants each year, as well as 116 pounds of toxic mercury. It would also emit some 14.6 million tons of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
In a fact sheet on its website, Old Dominion counters that the air permit for the power plant will contain mercury limits that meet the state guidelines designed to protect human health and the environment. "In other words," the company says, "the emissions of mercury lack sufficient concentration to adversely affect someone's health from inhalation."
But the environmentalists are concerned not only about mercury inhalation but also about the deposition of airborne mercury onto local waters where it enters the food chain and contaminates fish. They point out that there is no safe level of mercury ingestion.
Old Dominion argues that Virginia's mercury levels are declining and the Department of Environmental Quality states that only "3 percent of the mercury deposition occurring within Virginia can be attributed to EGUs [electric generating units] located within Virginia."
Old Dominion selected the 1,600-acre site in December 2008. David Hudgins, director of member and external communications for ODEC, said the cooperative forecasts energy demand among its consumer-members will double in the next 20 years.
"The Cypress Creek Power Station will not only provide our consumer-members with safe, reliable and affordable energy, but it will also provide many significant short- and long-term economic benefits to Dendron and surrounding areas," said Hudgins.
"From construction jobs to facility operations jobs and annual tax contributions, the economic benefits of this project, combined with our proven track record of responsibly managing similar operations, make this a win-win project for the local community," Hudgins said.
But Tom Cormons, Virginia director of the nonprofit Appalachian Voices, said if the Dendron Town Council hopes to generate jobs by approving the power plant, they are mistaken.
"A new economic report shows that local residents would get very few jobs from the plant," said Cormons. "For example, three construction jobs for Dendron residents. The majority voted without taking the time to review the new jobs report."
Cale Jaffe, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the power plant would not create green jobs, although green jobs are exactly what the newly elected Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican, wants for the state.
"In his State of the Commonwealth address, Governor McDonnell challenged Virginians to make the entire state a 'green jobs zone,' declaring that Virginia is for lovers of renewable energy," said Jaffe. "ODEC should step up to that challenge, abandon this old-style, coal plant proposal, and give Surry County a 21st century, green energy opportunity."
Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club in Virginia, said, "At $6 billion, this is the most expensive coal plant in the country, and ODEC is proposing to build it at a time when utilities all across the country are abandoning new coal plant projects. This would not be a prudent investment."
There are still many regulatory hurdles to surmount before the plant can be built. The State Corporation Commission will have to issue a certificate of need for the plant, which would allow ODEC to raise rates to pay for the plant.
In addition, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the State Air Pollution Control Board have authority over two required air pollution permits.
Also, the Army Corps of Engineers has authority over a federal wetland permit, and will be doing a environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act to determine the need for the plant and assess alternatives.
Each agency will hold separate public comment periods and public hearings. So opponents of the power plant are still hopeful that there is time to block it.
"It is time for Virginia to join the rest of the nation and move away from dirty, dangerous and outdated sources of energy, especially coal," said Chelsea Harnish with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "The opposition to this proposed coal plant is already strong and will only grow as more Virginians learn about the economic and environmental damage it will cause."
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