ABINGDON, Va. - Pollution from the new coal-fired power plant proposed for Wise County would cause negative health and economic effects across the Mountian Empire region, an ecologist told local activists at a Wednesday meeting.
"The haze that we see today, as I noticed driving up through Mountain City and Damascus and all of that ... there's nothing natural about it," said Matthew Wasson, program director of Appalachian Voices, who said he was speaking for the five environmental groups leading opposition to the plant.
"People have really gotten accustomed to seeing this white haze that obscures the mountains," he said. "That is air pollution ... mostly from sulfur dioxide pollution, mostly from coal-fired power plants in this part of the country."
He said the area loses 75 percent of normal visibility on a typical summer day because of pollution - and it's likely to have a negative affect on the region's growing tourism economy.
He said pollution caused by the plant would also result in more asthma and other respiratory problems, not only near the proposed $1.8 billion Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center outside of St. Paul, but also downwind in Abingdon, Damascus, Bristol and Sullivan County, Tenn.
"More people develop asthma, and people with asthma have more attacks and ... more hospital visits, more school absences, more missed work days ... they may not seem huge to start, but they add up," Wasson said.
"We literally are taking years off of children's lives because of that [reduced] lung function, in Abingdon, in Bristol, in this area."
Dan Genest, spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power, said in a telephone interview before Wednesday night's meeting that the proposed plant would meet all state and federal regulations in place to protect public health and the environment.
"In order to receive an air permit, we have to demonstrate through the permitting process that our power station will not impact human health or the environment," Genest said. "There are standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies that we have to meet, and the permit that we have filed meets all of that criteria."
The state's Air Pollution Control Board is scheduled to meet in Wise later this month to hear public comment and discuss whether to grant a permit for the plant. Air board approval is the project's only remaining regulatory hurdle.
"All of the state regulations are designed to protect human health and the environment, and the power station we are proposing to build has been demonstrated through modeling to have no impact on air quality, human health or the environment in that area," Genest said.
Dominion has proposed building its 585-megawatt plant so carbon-capture equipment can be added when the technology is available.
Some claim the technology will be proven five years after the proposed plant goes online in 2012, if permits are granted. Others maintain that carbon capture won't be available for many years, if the process works at all.
At Wednesday's meeting, Wasson said the plant would also encourage more mountaintop removal strip mining in Wise County and the region.
"It's like a bomb, like the world's biggest bomb ever went off," Wasson said of methods used to extract coal in the region, adding it causes flooding, water pollution and other damaging effects.
He said the plant is not needed - and energy companies should invest in solar and wind power instead.
Meanwhile, industry officials have said coal-fired power plants must be added to meet growing demand for electricity.
Pete Ramey, a retired coal miner and activist, also spoke at the meeting.
"We do not have to sacrifice our health and safety for the economy. We have to have both," Ramey said.
"When I was raised up in these communities, I worked in the coal mines ... It's kind of ironic that coal mining today is destroying the very thing my great-grandfather worked for, and I also worked for," he continued. "It's not only a sin against nature, it's a crime against humanity."
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