Winning and Losing in Wise

For the last year in Virginia we have been fighting tooth and nail against a new coal fired power plant in Wise Co., Va, one of the few coal producing counties in this state, and a place where King Coal still definitely reigns, though today we dealt him a mighty blow.

Below you will find a dispatch from CCAN blogger Susanna, part 3 of a series about this last week in Wise, which you can find over at their Blog.

Pete Ramey“This week I’m going to be in Wise County, where Dominion Power is planning to build a $1.8 billion coal-fired power plant. Members of the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and CCAN are putting on events around the meeting of the Air Board on Tuesday.

Today was the final day of the Air Board Hearing concerning the Wise County coal plant. The room was full of hope after yesterday’s comment period, and the board acknowledged the powerful citizen outcry over the plant’s health and environmental impacts. But ultimately, they approved the plant. While they significantly strengthened the emissions regulations, they did nothing to address mountain top removal mining or CO2 emissions.

They went as far as they could, without doing more harm than good. Fearing litigation from Dominion, they made no strong statement about regulating CO2—without the regulatory framework from the EPA, the Board felt it wasn’t able to take a strong stand. “My hope is,” stated one Air Board member, “that strong, forceful legislation will come at a federal level and that Governor Kaine will take state-specific actions to address CO2.”

It was because of the “loud public clamor” that the Air Board decided to take up this permit and make it as strong as it is now. Dominion will have to make a considerable effort to meet these demands, including cleaning up their mercury emissions. Dominion walked in the door expecting that their permit would get rubber-stamped approved with a 72 lb mercury emissions regulation. The Air Board demanded that they reduce that to 4.45 lbs per year. That’s a 120% reduction, made possible only by the strong grassroots outcry about this plant.

air boardIt was clear to me and other members of our coalition that this was a courageous move by the Air Board. They are going to take hits from both sides of the debate, neither of which got what they wanted. As Kathy Selvage said, “They gave no consideration for the mountains that will be the fuel for this plant.” MTR wasn’t mentioned by the Air Board at all. Also, the “out clause,” which allows Dominion to get a new permit if they cannot achieve the mercury standards, was also left in.

“There you go. We didn’t do it.,” said one Air Board member in his final comments. They didn’t take a strong stand on MTR, on CO2, or on the plant. But they did create a strong regulatory hurdle for Dominion, and they made an attempt to protect our air based on the Clean Air Act. The vote was unanimous.

Obviously, this is not enough. Southern Appalachian Law Center plans on taking the permit to court, further litigating the plant. It would also seem like as we impose delays and court battles, the plant is getting more and more expensive. It’s easy to see that a bank funding the plant would back out because of rising costs.

But it’s the people here who are going to continue to take up the fight. I want to thank every one that showed us such strong hospitality while we were here. Kathy Selvage, Larry Bush, and Jane Branham of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards welcomed us to their community and showed us the real side of coal in this state. Hannah Morgan was awesome enough to let us sleep at her house and organized a lot of our activities. To everyone who was involved—you guys rock!

On a final note, my sympathies run deep for the people who are trying to save their way of life. We also visited Stonega, a coal camp surrounded by strip mining sites. Mountains framed the valley on either side, where clear scars of strip mining were visible. Because they didn’t actually blast the mountain top off, it’s not MTR, but only a few scraggly trees had been left at the top. While we were standing there, 4 coal trucks went booming by in the space of a minute. A coal train also came and went while we were there and the screeching of their motors was jaw-clenching. That these people sleep through those noises not 20 feet from their doorsteps is incredible and also humbling. The people here sacrifice so much of the comfort of their lives to keep their jobs. It’s not just that their mountains are being torn down, but in their daily lives, they are constantly reminded of the dominion of coal. I can only hope that democracy will help to change life for the better here.”

We have learned a lot from this campaign, about how to take on a mega corporation, how to network students, ex coal miners, suburban physicians and town councils. We have made friends, and learned more about our enemies. But what we found out today is we have to keep standing up, keep rising up, until they make the right decision. This goes for all of us, for each of our individual fights that make up the big fight.

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