Taking Dirty Coal to Court in Georgia

This post was written by Amelia Shenstone, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | September 24, 2010 | Coal, Energy Policy

On September 13, SACE, represented by GreenLaw and the Southern Environmental Law Center, and our allies at the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter, Ogeechee Riverkeeper, and Fall-Line Alliance for a Clean Environment (FACE), began the official hearing process in court as part of our legal challenge to Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) air permits for Plant Washington, the proposed 850-MW coal plant in Sandersville, GA.  The hearing is currently ongoing, and we expect a verdict sometime in early October.

SACE’s legal challenge to Plant Washington is the latest step toward preventing risky new coal in Georgia.

If you are in the Atlanta area, please show your support for clean air by sitting in at the hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 28 or Wednesday, Sept. 29 between 9:30a-5p at the Office of State Administrative Hearings in downtown Atlanta.  Please contact Amelia Shenstone in SACE’s Atlanta office at (404) 373-5832 for more details.

At issue is whether the state set the emissions limits in the permit according to the law for certain pollutants.  Our lawsuit alleges that the state air permit fails to set safe limits on harmful pollutants that would be emitted by Plant Washington, including sulfuric acid mist, particulate matter, and dioxins, which are among the most toxic compounds known to humankind.

If permits are upheld as EPD originally approved them, Plant Washington would add tremendously to air pollution in Georgia.  In addition to emitting 6.9 MILLION TONS of carbon dioxide each year, the plant is currently slated to pump out:
•    1,890 TONS of acid-rain causing sulfur dioxide (SO2)
•    1,345 TONS of smog-forming nitrogen oxides (NOx)
•    1,101 TONS of particulate matter,linked to respiratory illnesses, heart disease and even premature death
•    63 pounds of mercury, which harms the nervous system, particularly in young children.  According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury in a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat.

SACE and our allies are concerned that even those numbers might reflect overly idealistic calculations.  According to GreenLaw attorney Justine Thompson:

“Conveniently, Power4Georgians claims it will emit 4.951 micrograms per cubic meter of coarse particulate matter, within a hair’s breadth of the 5.0 level that would require significant additional modeling.  To skip the full modeling study, P4G relied on weather conditions that included measurements from Centreville, AL, which is about 250 miles away, failed to account for worst-case scenarios in daily air pollution emissions, and took credit for an aggressive level of dust reduction based on a non-existent dust control plan.  When those mistakes and others are fixed, this plant could violate health based air quality standards.”

Part of the claims in the suit argue that the current limits set for HAPs (hazardous air pollutants) are inadequate as they are set by proxy, which is not an adequate means of ensuring protection for the public from the dangers of these pollutants.  When dealing with toxic, deadly pollution, we must err on the side of safety and gambling with toxic emissions is risky and inappropriate.  We need EPD to require a full and rigorous process to adequately protect the public – our children, our families – from the threats of hazardous air pollution.

On September 9 a new report from the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) showed that Georgia already bears a significant air pollution burden from coal-fired power plant particulate matter emissions, which are estimated to cause 536 deaths, 396 hospital admissions, and 728 heart attacks per year.  You can check the CATF interactive website here to determine what your health burden is from coal in your own county.

Judge Ronit Walker, who is hearing the air permit case, recently sent Plant Washington’s water pollution permit back to EPD for further review.  A favorable ruling on air pollution would require reconsideration of the air pollution permit, as well.

Listen to a telepress conference hosted by Georgians for Smart Energy, featuring SACE and our allied litigants and attorneys.

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