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Richmond hearing draws supporters of Wise power plant

Walter Littrell • Feb 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

RICHMOND — Despite the location of a public hearing being 400 miles from the site of the proposed Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, the gathering again attracted more supporters than opponents Tuesday evening in Richmond.

Dominion Virginia Power has proposed constructing a circulating fluidized bed technology for the station near St. Paul that will be able to burn a variety of fuels, including biomass and waste coal, or gob. The 585 megawatt center is designed to use up to 20 percent biomass as fuel, would use only Virginia coal, cost $1.8 million to build, and add upwards of $6 million in tax revenues each year. When complete, the station would provide an annual payroll of $4 million.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality held the second continuation on Tuesday of a hearing began on Feb. 11 at St. Paul High School, and despite the hearing’s location so far from the actual site, dozens of local supporters made their way to the state capital to once again plug for the electricity generating plant many think will inject a shot of life into a dying economy.

DEQ officials said at the start of the meeting that comments submitted on the draft air quality permit through March 12 will still be considered.

While several hundred people turned out for the hearing, just over 100 had signed up to speak.

While the majority of those taking the podium were supportive of issuing the permit, a throng of protesters outside the meeting hall at the Marriott West made it clear that the plant is not without opposition.

Early speakers included area legislators such as Sens. William C. Wampler Jr., Phillip Puckett and Frank Ruff, as well as Delegates Terry Kilgore and Dan Bowling, and former Secretary of Public Safety Jerry Kilgore, who all encouraged the DEQ to issue the permit in a timely manner.

Puckett told the DEQ that “the project is welcomed by the people of Wise County” and that “public officials have spoken very plainly of their support.”

He reminded the agency that Dominion plans for the plant include proceeding forward with the use of clean coal technology that will meet or exceed any regulations in place today, and that its construction is necessary to meet energy needs across the state and the nation. Further, he said, the plant is being built at the request of the commonwealth of Virginia because the state legislature believes it is in the best interest of Southwest Virginia and the rest of the state.

Puckett also touted the economic benefits of the facility, both during construction and once the plant is in operation.

“This is a win-win for Wise County and for Southwest Virginia,” he said.

Ruff, who represents Southside Virginia where the company has long operated power plants, said the company has been a good corporate citizen and has promised to take its Bremo power plant off-line and convert it from coal to natural gas operation, but only if the Virginia City plant is approved.

Wampler pointed out that the state legislature has previously taken the “extraordinary step to vote for this plant because it is in the public interest of the state.” He then asked that the department “follow the law.” He also said the department should consider both sides of the issue then take action “in the most expeditious manner.”

Any delay, he said, would likely result in increased costs that will have to be carried by ratepayers when the plant does go online.

Terry Kilgore said the plant would give the region an opportunity to “stand apart from other areas of the country in advancing clean coal technology. Let us be on the cutting edge and let Virginia be a leader.”

Jerry Kilgore noted that Southwest Virginians have long struggled to obtain and retain jobs and said this plant would help the region diversify its economy. He appealed to the department to “review the science and not the rhetoric.”

He further pointed out that the department has already produced a draft permit for the plant, which would be the cleanest in the country, and said that coal provides more than half the nation’s electricity, and at a time when more energy is needed, the proposed plant could help meet that need.

Several supporters with connections to Dominion then urged issuance of the permit in a timely manner, and about a dozen speakers had taken their allocated three minutes before the first detractor spoke.

Their concerns included emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that could lead to health problems not just for residents of the area but for people across the state. Some asked that alternative energy sources be looked for, while others said the company’s promise to utilize carbon capture technology when it becomes commercially available can’t be guaranteed because the technology may never become available. Others argued that the company wouldn’t be compelled to use the technology even then.

During a break in the hearing James K. Martin, Dominion senior vice president of business development and generation construction, said his company would be willing to have that included as a provision of the permit and added that the company has already promised DEQ that it will utilize the technology when it is available.

Other detractors argued that “dirty coal won’t be clean energy” and that science doesn’t back up the company’s claims because regulations lag behind the implementation of new regulations.

Other supporters included Wise County’s Donnie Ratliff, vice president of external affairs for Alpha Natural Resources, and Lee County’s Keith Mohn, who said that the plant can help the environment through the use of waste coal and the burning of biomass and other waste.

Mohn said the plant could conserve the use of diesel fuel, prevent exhaust emissions, conserve water and bring other environmental improvements.

Ratliff said coal is the only domestic energy source capable of economically supplying the nation’s energy needs and that the plant would provide a reliable source of affordable power for homes, manufacturing, educational, retail and professional institutions.

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