Proposed Midstate Coal-Fired Plant Draws Variety of Opposition

Published on
by
The Macon Telegraph (Georgia)

Proposed Midstate Coal-Fired Plant Draws Variety of Opposition

by
S. Heather Duncan

Southern Company's Plant Bowen in Cartersville, Georgia is seen in this aerial photograph in Cartersville in this file photo taken September 4, 2007. One of the biggest coal-fired plants in the country, it generates about 3,300 megawatts of electricity from four coal-fired boilers. (Chris Baltimore/Reuters)

In a county where folks are
accustomed to a single industry calling the shots, community organizing
doesn't come naturally.

But
some Washington County landowners are starting to line up against a
proposed coal-fired power plant, with the help of college and high
school students from around the state.

Opponents have created the Fall Line Alliance for a Clean
Environment, or FACE, which is in the process of incorporating as a
nonprofit group.

"The
diversity of people working on this project is impressive," said
Katherine Cummings, a professional health advocate and president of the
group. Among those involved are kaolin workers, well drillers, retired
educators and more.

At issue is a $2.1 billion plant scheduled to
be built eight miles north of Sandersville. Powered by coal, the plant
would generate 850 megawatts of electricity for 10 cooperatives that
teamed to form Power4Georgians, which would own the plant. The
cooperatives, including Washington Electric Membership Corporation,
would sell the electricity. The proposal is awaiting state
environmental permits before it can proceed.

The alliance's
monthly meetings have hosted various experts to help educate community
members about issues related to the plant, including:

  • The
    Ogeechee Canoochee riverkeeper, who talked about mercury pollution in
    area rivers and how coal-fired plants contribute to it;
  • A geologist to talk about the aquifer;
  • A professor who offered a primer about environmental justice and community organizing;
  • Lawyers
    with Greenlaw, an Atlanta firm that successfully challenged state
    permits for another proposed coal-fired power plant in Early County; and
  • Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, a group that spoke about how faith groups can be better stewards of the environment.

Local
interest has grown. One of the community meetings, held in Warthen,
drew about 65 people, organizers said. Some opponents own land that
would be crossed by a Sandersville Railroad spur that would be built to
supply the plant, said alliance member Elaine Weathers.

Yet when
the group's members try to hand out buttons or post yard signs
promoting clean energy over coal, it's tough to find takers, Weathers
said. Many people are afraid of retaliation for opposing a plan that
many local leaders support.

In Washington County, kaolin has been
king for half a century. It was such a powerful industry, with such
control over the landscape, that many people aren't used to the idea
that regular folks might have a say in how the land is used.

"Everybody
thought they couldn't do anything to stop it," Weathers said. "It took
a month of calling people to convince them, 'You still have a voice in
this.' "

Students associated with the Southern Energy Network, an
organization of campus and community groups concerned about climate
change, started canvassing door-to-door in Washington County in the
spring, said network organizer Seth Gunning.

The students asked
residents about their concerns and provided information about Plant
Washington, helping get plant opponents in touch with each other, said
student organizer Natasha Fast. The alliance emerged partly from this
effort.

Fast even ran a week long summer camp in Sandersville
called Energy Justice Georgia, offering workshops to about 35 young
people around the state who wanted to learn about community organizing
as well as renewable energy and coal.

Tony Rice, a Georgia
College & State University student and action chairman for the
college's Environmental Sciences Club, was one of about 20 students
from Milledgeville involved in the door-to-door "listening project."

"There
were a lot of people who weren't aware of the plant or were opposed but
weren't sure how to go about it," he said. "It seemed there was a lot
of fear of backlash from the Tarbuttons," the family that owns
Sandersville Railroad Co. The company historically made its money
transporting kaolin and now plans to run a spur to the new power plant.

"That
sounds pretty ridiculous to me," said Hugh Tarbutton, president of
Sandersville Railroad. "I think you've got a lot of people coming in
here and stirring up stuff who don't know anything about it. ... Many
communities this size are drying up and dying, and we've determined not
to let that happen here."

SUPPORT IS EVIDENT

Many Washington County residents welcome the new plant, said Tommy Walker, who was recently elected County Commission chairman.

He
said he heard a lot about Plant Washington during his campaign, mostly
from voters who said the county needs the jobs - and the addition to
the tax base.

Outside Washington County, students from around the
state also have gone door-to-door in Atlanta territory served by Cobb
EMC, arguably the power behind Power4Georgians. Cobb Energy, a
for-profit company that managed Cobb EMC, owns the company that is
developing Plant Washington.

Students encouraged Cobb EMC members to send the company postcards protesting the plant, Gunning said.

They
also staged a protest in Atlanta where they posed in evening wear as
"Billionaires for Coal" toasting the Plant Washington project.

"Us
students, we're looking toward the future and really trying to push
renewables as voters, as taxpayers and as future leaders," Fast said.

This month, Power4Georgians held a "community information fair" at
Sandersville Technical College, said Dean Alford, whose company Allied
Energy Services is developing Plant Washington. About 85 people
attended, he said, and the most common concern they voiced was about
the plant's potential impact on their water supply.

The plant's
application indicated that it would pipe 16 million gallons of water a
day from the Oconee River. During periods of low flow, the water would
instead be pumped from the Cretaceous aquifer via a series of wells.
Washington County residents, including those who buy Sandersville city
water, rely on the aquifer for their water supply.

"I think
people whose homes are nearby are at a huge risk for losing their
water," said Cummings, who owns land near the plant site and lives
north of Sandersville.

That's also a fear of Paula Swint, a
former Sandersville principal who has lived within 10 miles of the
plant site for 30 years. Her well has gone dry in the past, and its
replacement is deeper with poorer water, she said.

Swint and
Weathers said many longtime Washington County residents garden, hunt
and otherwise live close to the land. Some of the newer arrivals are
retirees who chose Washington County for its pleasant country
environment, and they fear the environmental harm the plant might cause.

"I
feel our food sources, water and air are being threatened," said Swint,
who has a large garden. "We just sat here and enjoyed our country
living while someone else came along and said, 'These are rural people.
They won't care.' "

 

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