Surry residents in danger of becoming canaries in coal mine

    According to the Surry County website, “Surry County provides a montage of rolling farmlands, blossoming woods, water-front panoramas, and quaint lifestyles.” Yet Surry’s pastoral southeast is threatened by the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative’s proposal to build a coal-fired power plant in Dendron, Va., a mere 22 miles away from campus.

    More than 160 people from Surry, Sussex and surrounding counties faced the Surry Board of Supervisors on Feb. 4. Many of ODEC’s employees and supporters fell silent as a crowd of citizens stood to protest against preparations to construct the Cypress Creek Power Station. ODEC promised 1,500 megawatts of “reliable, affordable power” from coal which they described as, “highly efficient, reliable, cost effective, and abundant.”

    ODEC enticed Surry to accept the deal by offering Dendron $600,000 for water, $65,000 for sidewalks and $100,000 for recreation and also offered the County $200,000 for the Surry Public Library, improvements to roads, two million gallons of water capacity and $22 million in annual revenue.

    On Thursday, the Surry Board of Supervisors voted unanimously 7-0 to accept ODEC’s amendments, which they felt would help meet the needs of the community and improve the integrity of zoning practices.

    The citizens of Surry County were outraged. One of the residents presented the Council and Board with public polls in the order of 5-2 against coal interests. Residents and neighbors of Surry had protested and pleaded with the Board for five hours during public hearings.

    The Board and Council pushed a vote through without heeding their citizens, bargaining over ODEC’s terms, or even conducting an environmental study, which ODEC had deemed unnecessary and counterproductive. The Surry Board of Supervisors literally read off the resolutions they had written before they convened.

    There is no such thing as clean coal. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Burns and McDonnell Engineering Company and the EPA’s CALPUFF emissions model — a simulation of atmospheric pollution — even if ODEC obeys the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards and integrates Maximum Achievable Control Technology, Cypress Creek’s two 750 megawatt coal boilers will consume 610 tons of coal per hour and emit annually into the air 14.6 million tons carbon dioxide, 118 pounds mercury, 1724 tons nitrogen oxides, 2068 tons sulfur dioxide, 158 tons sulfuric acid and 1034 tons particulate matter. Other filtered flyash will be restrained in a hazardous landfill until its concentrate leaches into groundwater, soil, and air over ten, twenty, forty years.

    Cypress Creek will demand mountain top removal and strip mining. According to the Virginia Conservation Network, thousands of acres of rock, forest and stream across hundreds of Appalachian mountains have been obliterated by explosives and debris. Communities endure damage, contamination, flooding and desecration.

    Members of Surry Justice and the Coalition to Keep Surry Clean were sardonic against the board. The Board, meanwhile, was furious that the Coalition had empowered and mobilized so many ordinarily complacent or helpless citizens, and the public was outraged at the obstinance of their elected officials in the face of all cries for social and environmental justice.

    The Board of Surry County represents a working class, rural, agricultural and residential county. Roughly 52 and 47 percent of Surry citizens are Caucasian and African American, respectively, whereas 80 and 13 percent of Williamsburg citizens are Caucasian and African American, respectively. Similarly, approximately 13 and 45 percent of Surry and Williamsburg citizens, respectively, have bachelor’s degrees. My point? ODEC capitalizes on race, gender and class.

    Surry County struggles to succeed and prosper economically and socially. Many of ODEC’s offerings are directed at real needs. In comparison with great cities, Surry is incapable of mobilizing, defending, repairing or recovering from environmental devastation. Every community says to ODEC, “Not in my backyard.”

    But when push comes to shove, electricity, money and talent flow into shining cities while already struggling and hardworking inner cities and peripheries are further marginalized, neglected and forced to bear the environmental and human costs, the externalities, of psychopathic corporations and cooperatives.

    Poor and black are exactly the qualities ODEC looks for in deciding where to lobby for a coal plant. Surry County is a region with few human and material resources and little experience in environmental movement, defense and justice. But Surry is desperate for stimuli, is the weakest obstacle for ODEC steamrollers, and may be, though God forbid, the faintest voice crying out for justice in bearing the burdens of societies who, in the 21st century, have no where else to throw their waste and desolation than onto others.

    _E-mail Tom Lever at


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