ST. PAUL — A new coal-fired power plant under construction generated a festive mood during formal groundbreaking ceremonies Thursday at the Wise County site, with officials touting the prospect of generating unparalleled prosperity for the county and Southwest Virginia.
Construction actually got under way on Dominion Virginia Power’s $1.8 billion, coal-fired, 585-megawatt electricity generating station about a month ago, and site preparation started last autumn. The facility was hailed on Thursday as an economic powerhouse for the county and the region, with new tax revenue projections of $6 million annually for St. Paul and Wise County packing an annual regional economic impact of $450 million.
“This is the largest economic development project in the history of Southwest Virginia,” said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. “You very seldom see an economic impact this project will have.”
An invitations-only crowd over 300 strong was a virtual who’s who of local and state dignitaries. Gov. Tim Kaine and Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon, were unable to attend but their presence was felt by letter and reference by other speakers. Besides Bolling, state officials included Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell and state Secretary of Commerce & Trade Patrick O. Gottschalk. Area legislators included state Sens. William Wampler Jr., R-Bristol, and Phillip Puckett, D-Lebanon, and state Delegates Bud Phillips, D-Clintwood, and Don Bolling, D-Tazewell.
Local officials ranged from the Wise County Board of Supervisors, an ardent supporter of the project from the get-go, and new St. Paul Mayor Kyle Fletcher as well as the former town mayor, Jack Kiser. Wise County school officials attended as did The University of Virginia’s College at Wise Chancellor David Prior. UVA-Wise Baptist Campus Ministries’ Rev. James N. Collie Jr. provided a rousing benediction for Thursday’s ceremonies.
Security was tight but no protesters were in evidence. Environmentalists continue to assail the project as a threat to local health, land and waters, and a future contributor to greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. Dominion Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas F. Farrell II said providing power to an energy hungry nation points to a need for more high-tech generating stations such as the Virginia City facility is reputed to be.
“Building a base-load, coal-fired power station is expensive, time-consuming and not without controversy, especially in these times of heightened environmental awareness,” Farrell said. “It takes extensive planning, unshakable determination and strong public and private sector cooperation to move from the design phase to the development and operation of a major generating facility. Your presence here today is a valuable reminder of that fact. Dominion is very grateful for the strong support this project has received since the General Assembly passed legislation in 2004 calling for its construction.”
That was Wampler’s doing, and the Bristol senator received a standing ovation on Thursday as the driving force behind legislation to build power plants in Southwest Virginia fueled by Southwest Virginia coal. Wampler “led the charge on the legislative front,” said James K. Martin, Dominion senior vice president for Business Development and Generation Construction.
Coal has been the economic mainstay for generations of Southwest Virginians, Wampler said, and it still “means a lot today and in our future.” The facility’s huge economic impact will not only help Dominion meet an expected new demand for electricity by 2017, enough to power 1 million homes, he said, but the 2 million tons of coal to be mined by 350 miners in the decades to come, coupled with the tax revenues and massive “ripple” economic effect of $450 million annually, “will generate a lot of extra revenue to educate our children, yet unborn.”
Wampler said Dominion’s new facility will be “the cleanest coal-fired plant in the nation,” and recent state Air Board decisions ensured restrictions on emissions will include the toughest standards for any such plant in the country.
“This will benefit the whole state,” said Attorney General McDonnell. “That’s why you have people here from the whole state today. This is a victory and a celebration for all the citizens of Virginia.”
Puckett praised local officials — particularly county supervisors — for their steadfast support of the project. Not only local officials but an unwavering majority of residents “have been up in front” in support, he said. “Thank you for stepping out and saying, ‘This is what we want,’” Puckett said.
The senator also read a letter from Boucher in which the congressman also praised local officials and residents for being “steadfast in their support” of the project.
Phillips said Thursday was “a beautiful day to celebrate the future of Southwest Virginia” and the process ensured “we made all the right decisions for all the right reasons to site this plant here today.”
With friends on both sides of the issue, Phillips said he focused his concern making sure “the process, the law and the regulations work as they should.” When the Air Board delayed its decision on permits this spring, Phillips said he asked the governor to remind board members they “ought to follow the law” and Kaine “sent out a loud and clear message to that effect.”
The result, he said, is “one of the most important economic development projects in my lifetime.”
Gottschalk said the governor’s “personal support” for the project centered on three issues: economic development, positive energy impact, and a “positive and responsible impact on the environment.”
“From an energy perspective, this project fits right in the crosshairs of (the state’s) energy plan,” Gottschalk said. “This will be a very clean and very environmentally responsible plant.”
Dominion wants to have the generating station operational by 2012. During construction, he said contractors will install 60,000 cubic yards of concrete, 20,000 tons of steel, 34 miles of pipe, more than 3 million feet of cable “and the clean coal technology that will enable us to produce power for decades to come.”
Farrell said Dominion’s customers need the plant. The utility projects a need for 4,000 megawatts of base-load power by 2017.
“Base-load generation, like clean coal and nuclear power, run 24/7 and are the backbone of our fleet,” he said. “Over the long term, having adequate base-load capacity is the best means of ensuring stable and economic electric rates for our customers. Power produced by these units has a very low unit cost compared with other generating options.”