ST. PAUL, Minn. - By any standard, it is the biggest environmental controversy in Virginia today - a $1.8 billion power plant, proposed by the state's largest electric company, in the heart of coal country here in mountainous southwest Virginia.
The debate, while centered far from Hampton Roads, touches many core issues affecting all Virginians, including global warming, fossil fuels, air quality, mercury contamination, economic development, state energy needs, jobs and social justice.
After years of protest and negotiation, the dispute is coming to a head this week, with two public hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday in a Wise County high school gym before the state Air Pollution Control Board.
More than a thousand people are expected to turn out, which, in a county of about 40,000 people, is huge. Afterward, the state board could vote for an air-pollution permit for the facility - the last major regulatory hurdle that the developer, Dominion Virginia Power, needs before construction can begin.
But even that would not likely end the fight, as both sides are gearing up for court action. Also, Dominion still must obtain a state
environmental permit for a proposed landfill, where tons of fly ash would be buried near the Clinch River, a drinking-water supply in the area.
Almost every politician and local official from the remote, financially depressed region endorses the project, expected to generate electricity for at least 50 years.
It was a state senator from southwest Virginia, William C. Wampler Jr., a Republican, who got the ball rolling with region-specific legislation in 2004.
That bill, along with an amendment in 2007, declared the plant "in the public interest" and worthy of swift development. Only Virginia coal would be burned, and all electricity produced would be for in-state customers.
In response, environmental groups from across the state have joined hands with church leaders, activists, scientists and some local residents to contest what they call an unnecessary and ecologically dangerous coal-fired project - one that states should be avoiding during these transitional times toward greener energy.
"It's just wrong on so many levels," said Kathy Selvage, a lifelong resident here who helped to launch an environmental group, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, in part to fight the power plant.
Her group is a member of a broader coalition, the Wise Energy for Virginia campaign, which includes the Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Appalachian Voices.
The coalition gathered more than 45,000 signatures in opposition to the plant and delivered a nearly mile-long scroll to Dominion executives at a shareholder meeting this spring in Chicago.
Over a cup of coffee near the plant site, just outside the town of St. Paul, Selvage recently described how her father spent his life mining coal in Wise County, where the proposed 585-megawatt plant would be built.
Dominion has purchased an old log-cabin restaurant near the 1,300-acre site and turned it into a makeshift field office. The parking lot on this day was buzzing with contractors and pickups and job-seekers applying for work.
Heavy equipment already was reshaping the earth in preparation for development. The two nearest structures were churches, one a white washed Presbyterian sanctuary standing since 1893.
A new sign welcomed visitors to Dominion's "Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center."
Selvage scoffs at the name, describing it as a public-relations ploy intended to "make people think that this is somehow clean and green like a Toyota Prius or something."
To her and other opponents, the project would pollute the air with smog and mercury, threaten the nearby Clinch River with fly-ash wastes, perpetuate strip mining and mountaintop-removal methods, and continue an age-old divide in coal country between rich and poor.
"Heaven help us if this thing actually happens," she said.
In St. Paul, Selvage stopped to visit with Jaculyn Hanrahan, a fellow opponent who runs the Appalachian Office of Justice and Peace for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond.
The two hugged when they met outside Hanrahan's small office.
"If this is such a good deal for everyone, why do we have to pass legislation to accept it here?" Hanrahan asked.
"I've seen this happen so many times around here - people are left out of the process and we're always pitting the need for jobs against the environment," she added. "It's always a trade-off. But it doesn't have to be."
Dominion officials reject such criticism as misinformed and emotional.
They note that the plant would be built with scrubbers and other controls to greatly limit emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, or soot.
"This station is going to be benign," said Dan Genest, a utility spokesman in Richmond.
The facility would release about 5 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year, officials concede. But they note that space is being set aside for technology that would capture such greenhouse gases and inject them into the ground, thus limiting their potential for contributing to global warming.
Such technology does not exist commercially right now, Genest said. But the company is working with Virginia Tech to develop a system and hopes to install equipment by 2018 - six years after the plant is scheduled to open.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who has pledged to cut greenhouse gases in Virginia, has disappointed environmentalists by supporting the plant.
He also included its development in his state energy plan, released last year. To Kaine and others, Virginia must produce more of its own power to meet growing demands for electricity, while also pursuing energy conservation and efficiency as well as green technologies.
Kaine, too, favors Dominion's plans for expanding its nuclear capacity - if done sensitively and with full public review - by constructing as many as two new reactors at its North Anna power station outside of Richmond.
Genest said Virginia continues to be a leading importer of electricity, compared to other states. Building a "clean coal" plant such as the one in Wise County, he said, is one way to serve more customers and do so with minimal environmental risk.
"You have to realize that more than 50 percent of this nation's electricity comes from coal," Genest said. "We have the coal here in Virginia, we have technology to do it cleanly, and we have needs that have to be met."
Skip Skinner started his job as Wise County administrator in late 2004. On his first day in office, he met with congressional staff about the proposed power plant. The facility has dominated his time and attention since then.
"Unless you've walked in our shoes, you don't understand what this means to our economy," said Skinner, who grew up in the county.
Wise County would receive about $5 million a year in new tax revenues, or about one-eighth of the government's annual budget of about $44 million. Local services - including environmental programs, such as connecting more homes to sanitary sewer lines - and public education would benefit most directly, Skinner said.
According to Dominion, 800 new jobs would be created to construct the plant, and 75 full-time employees would be needed to operate the station.
About 2 million tons of coal would be required to stoke the boiler system each year, enough to secure another 250 mining jobs, Dominion says. Overall, the plant would net about $300 million a year for the economy, according to a Virginia Tech financial analysis.
The county already has granted Dominion all its local permits. Skinner views the state air board meetings this week, and the possibility of a permit being approved, as "hopefully the last decision that needs to be made on this."
The Virginia Air Pollution Control Board does not usually involve itself so intensely in the permitting process, instead leaving that chore to the state Department of Environmental Quality.
But concerns that DEQ was crafting too weak a pollution permit, and was meeting privately with Dominion in doing so, caused environmentalists to complain and the board to intervene - by a 3-2 vote in March.
What has resulted so far is a tougher air permit. Instead of allowing Dominion to release up to 79 pounds of mercury into the sky each year, for example, the current proposal would set a 49-pound limit.
Genest said Dominion expects to see an 8-pound limit in the latest update to be released this week. Mercury is a neurotoxin affecting the human brain and the rest of the nervous system. Its release from power plants is suspected of being a primary reason why so many state streams and rivers are under fish-consumption advisories.
The back-and-forth nature of the permitting debate, and how ever-stricter limits are proving acceptable after all, has led environmentalists to suggest they were right all along.
"It's not state-of-the-art technology, as Dominion claims," said Tom Cormons, an attorney and state director of Appalachian Voices, an environmental group.
"They clearly have had the ability to do better, but simply didn't want to - until they were pushed to spend the money," Cormons said from his Charlottesville office. "It's green-washing, pure and simple."
The term " hybrid energy center" stems from Dominion's plans to burn coal, waste coal and scrap wood at Wise County. Waste coal, however, often has a higher content of mercury and other pollutants. Environmentalists say Dominion could easily use lower-sulfur coal and more sophisticated technologies.
Genest disputed such claims, saying the burning of waste coal - known as GOB - will remove unsightly piles of unwanted slag that were mined years ago and left in local streams and wetlands.
He said lower-sulfur coal could be utilized, as it is at a Dominion power plant in Chesapeake. But the company remains bound to mine Appalachian coal, Genest said, and also is constructing a control system that will capture most pollutants before they even reach the smokestack.
In response to concerns from the National Forest Service over potential harm from excessive sulfur dioxide emissions on the nearby Linville Gorge Wilderness, Dominion has pledged to tighten its controls.
A draft air permit called for emissions of no more than 3,200 tons of sulfur dioxide per year. But, Genest said, Dominion is prepared to cut that limit to about 1,670 tons a year.
Larry Bush, a retired federal mine inspector and member of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, fears that the Wise County plant would increase "mountaintop removal" of local coal.
The technique involves the use of explosives to blow up parts of mountains so coal seams can more easily be reached by miners and machines.
Just north of the town of Appalachia, in Wise County, Bush recently pointed to a new mountaintop mining site. There, trees and grass had been scraped off the landscape, allowing rocks and debris to slide freely into a catch basin below.
A trickle of water seeped out of the basin and into a nearby stream. The stream bed was bright orange - a sign, Bush said, of the environmental harm that comes with mountaintop removal.
"You should see the stream near my house," Bush said. "I caught minnows there for 30 years. But now it's just dead, filled with silt that's this same color. It looks like a sewage dump."
Asked about mountaintop removal, Genest said that Dominion has yet to negotiate coal contracts with mining firms, adding that the issue might come up during future talks.
He also said environmentalists sometimes confuse strip mining with mountaintop removal, a charge that Bush laughed at.
"I've been watching these mountains all my adult life," he said. "I know what's greedy and unnecessary. And this is greedy and unnecessary."
Back in St. Paul, Bush's colleague in the power-plant fight, Kathy Selvage, was preparing to drive back home. She had meandered through the mountain roads from her native town of Wise, the county seat, for more meetings on this day.
She was tired, and her husband needed to get to a doctor's appointment.
"It's hard to fight Dominion, I'll say that," Selvage said as she climbed into her sedan. A bumper sticker on her back window read, "I've been to the mountaintop, but it was gone."
"They've got all the money, all the power. And I'm doing this for free, on my own time," Selvage said with a forced grin.
She then took off, her car straining to climb another steep mountain pass.
© 2008 The Virginian-Pilot