About 350 people, many holding signs demanding “NO COAL PLANT!” turned out last night for a public hearing in southeastern, Virginia, on a rezoning for what would be the largest coal-fired power plant ever built in the commonwealth.
Three quarters of the 75 people who spoke declared their opposition to the proposed 1500 megawatt Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC) plant in Dendron, about 30 miles west of Hampton Roads.
“Our water, our air!” protesters chanted outside of Surry County High School.
“I want clean air and clean water for my time and for all these young people that are here,” said Jean Frey, a retired teacher who lives in Surry County. “I think it’s just a travesty what’s being proposed here.”
Despite the vocal public opinion against the plant, after five hours of testimony, at about 1 a.m. the Surry County Planning Commission voted 10-1 to recommended approval of a rezoning that would allow the plant. The planning commission voted the same way in 2010, but that decision was thrown out by a judge last fall, because the county did not properly advertise the public hearing.
Michael Drewry, a local farmer and attorney who successfully sued to demand the re-hearing last night, said that he was disappointed that the planning commission seemed to want to rush to approve ODEC’s proposal.
“My grandfather was a farmer, and he didn’t have much education. But he told me a long time ago, ‘Mike, a good man knows when to fight, and a good man knows when not to fight,” Drewry said. “And this was one of those times one had to fight.”
The fight continues, as the Dendron Town Council will consider the rezoning on Monday. Then the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have to approve permits for the plant, for which ODEC has not yet re-applied.
A 2011 report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation concluded that air pollution from the ODEC plant would cause 442 asthma attacks and 26 premature deaths a year, worsen ozone air pollution across the region, and add up to 44 pounds a year of toxic mercury pollution and 921 pounds of lead to the environment annually.
Not all of the speakers at last night’s event were against the plant. Seventeen people spoke in favor of the plant, including advocates for the power and timber industries (the plant would burn not only coal, but also scrap wood) and some local residents.
“I’m 110 percent for the plant,” said Joe Hancock, a local resident who attended the meeting. “We got a little town here called Dendron, and there’s nothing in it….It’s a dead town. We’ve got an opportunity to bring it back. And people who don’t even live in Surry County are trying to kick against it, and I think that’s sad.”
ODEC's history in boosting economic development in small towns is questionable. The power company built a similar coal-fired power plant near another southern Virginia community, Clover, in 1995. But after the plant opened, Clover lost population and businesses, and the town declined so much that the remaining citizens took the rare step of disbanding their own government.
During the meeting last night, Stephen Romine, an attorney representing ODEC, said that the power company had already purchased the 1,336 acres of land for the proposed project in Dendron. The plant would be built in fields now zoned for agriculture, and located immediately adjacent to several homes. In the early 20th century, the site held a lumber mill. If the project moves ahead, about 3,000 construction workers would find work building the coal-fired power plant, and about 200 full time employees would work at the plant when it is completed, Romine said.
"Total capital investment is going to be $5 billion, according to our best estimates today. And it will result in substantial capital payments -- we are talking in the millions of dollars," to local government, Romine said.
Dahlgren Vaughn, the Environment, Health and Safety Coordinator for ODEC, said that the company will not re-apply for its air emissions permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality until 2013.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation