Surry County coal plant will leave Virginia in the dust, and fly ash

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January 29, 2009

11:10 PM

Late last year, the Old Dominion Electrical Cooperative (ODEC) began the process of constructing a massive new coal-burning power plant within 20 miles of campus in Surry County, Virginia. If local, state and national officials permit construction on this plant to begin, it will mean that all of the meaningful actions taken by faculty, staff and students in order to reduce the amount of hazardous pollutants in our environment would essentially be for naught. This should not be allowed to happen.

Coal-burning power plants of this scale emit millions of tons of greenhouse gas pollutants and are a major factor in the increasing rate of climate change affecting the entire state. These plants are many times dirtier than other alternatives and are responsible for emitting noxious chemicals and fly ash into the environment.
The power companies behind this plant are working tirelessly to make this dirty coal plant seem like an acceptable option. They say that there is an absolute necessity for new sources of electricity, that the plant will revitalize the area’s economy, and that they are actually a green company. I urge you to be skeptical of such lofty claims.

A recent study by Abt Associates, an independent economic analysis firm, found these claims of dire need and unparalleled economic growth to be exaggerated. The study found that if the capital that would be dumped into these outdated coal technologies were instead directed to efficiency, the need for these expansions of Virginia’s power infrastructure could be nearly eliminated. Under such a scenario, existing power outputs could still easily meet energy demands, thus avoiding undesired effects of coal-based energy production. The necessary actions to achieve this would create greater economic opportunity than the short-term construction jobs and subsequent handful of positions at the power plant.

The ODEC’s idea that they can green-wash their activities is just silly. In recent statements, the company has claimed that because they buy marginal amounts of wind energy from another company outside of Virginia and because the plant will use around 2 percent biomass (essentially ground-up trees) it is okay for them to build a plant that will create devastating environmental effects.

The company seems to hope that because the proposed site is in a rural area where most people in the surrounding area never go, the hazards of burning coal will remain out of sight and out of mind. But the mercury produced by burning coal does not care that you have never been to Surry. It does not care that there is a river between the proposed site and you. If the plant is built, the pollution will come.

This is not just a “not in my backyard” reaction; dirty coal-fired power plants are not a good idea anywhere. Because this one happens to be in our backyard, though, we now have a meaningful voice and opportunity to oppose it. In the coming weeks and months at town hall meetings and other local gatherings, concerned members of our community will have the chance to explain to these power companies and the area’s elected officials that burning coal is not a smart choice for Virginia’s energy future.

Rising energy demand is certainly a problem that requires attention. If we continue to consume energy at an ever-increasing rate, there will forever be a disparity between what we consume and what we produce. We must address this now. We can do this through improvements in efficiency and advancements in technology, or we can continue to rely on the same failed methods.

Remember, we are not going to solve our 21st-century problems by relying on the 19th-century technology that created the problem in the first place.

Ben Schultz is a senior at the College.

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