Surry Coal Plant Victory

September 5, 2012

On August 8, 2012, news broke that Old Dominion Electric Cooperative’s plans to construct the largest coal-fired power plant in the state of Virginia were officially on hold due to the most recent EPA regulations on atmospheric CO2. The regulations will limit CO2 production by power plants to 1000 pounds per megawatt of energy generated, which the Surry plant would exceed.

Photo from Chesapeake Climate Action Network

This news came at a critical juncture for the town of Dendron, for Surry County, and for the groups organizing against the plant in these and surrounding areas. In many ways, the plant was narrowly avoided; it was ODEC’s plan to break ground on the facility this year. If construction on the plant had begun on schedule, the plant would have been grandfathered, and would not have been held to the new regulatory standards.

While the EPA regulations are directly responsible for halting plans to construct the plant, it was only the final piece of a long and convoluted story, one that demonstrates the power of delay when fighting an energy source that is past its prime.

The town of Dendron originally approved zoning for the town that would allow the plant to be constructed in February of 2010. The approving vote was problematic; it was not advertised in the agenda for the meeting, and when a local resident asked whether or not there would be any actions taken at the meeting, he was told that the meeting would only include public comments. The dramatic voting controversy can be watched online in two parts:

Watch Part 2 Here.

Disagreement on the council and the abstention of several members was not enough to prevent the illegal vote from going through unanimously in favor of the plant.

The next two years brought many changes. In September of 2010, ODEC delayed their permitting process for 16 to 24 months, citing the lack of demand for electricity caused by slower-than-expected financial growth, and uncertainty over the future of emissions regulations.

In the meantime, the company still faced tremendous local opposition. In particular, several local citizens filed a lawsuit against the company and the town of Dendron over the illegal vote, which they won in November of 2011. The town had a chance to revisit the zoning changes in early March of 2012, and deny the plant from being built; again, it was approved unanimously. Before disappointment could set in for Surry County – who came out in force at two public hearings held in February and March to oppose the plant – the new EPA regulations were announced.

Photograph from the February, 2012 Planning and Zoning Hearing. Photo credit: Jackie Carroll

For now, the future of Surry County is uncertain. The Supreme Court could still overturn the regulations, and it is in ODEC’s power to change their plans for the Dendron property. The fate of the regulations – and of the EPA – could also be in the hands of voters this election day. For the time being, the likelihood of a coal plant being constructed in Surry County is at an all-time low.

This story shows that as time goes on, coal is proving to be less and less viable of an energy source. ODEC was the first to admit this when it first delayed its permitting process due to lack of energy demand. In March, the EPA all-but announced the end of the coal era with their new regulations on CO2. With the acceleration of climate change, we can no longer afford to obtain our energy from the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, and our regulations are finally beginning to reflect this truth.

To take on powerful energy companies and win, especially as a small town whose financial and political resources are far exceeded by those of their opposition, is a nigh-impossible task. As shown in Dendron, however, sometimes delay is the magic formula. Ordinary citizens may not be able to defeat coal outright, but they can, and will, fight and survive until this dinosaur fuel is finally laid to rest.

-Sharon Hartzell

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