Saturday, June 23, 2007

Proposed Dominion Power Plant: Economic Boon or Polluting Menace?

The first lesson I ever remember getting in economics and politics came from my Dad, whose Eastern Kentucky family had suffered greatly during The Great Depression. He was a big fan of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he never pretended to be objective about things when it came to his views on politcs (or anything else for that matter). When I was in elementary school in the 1960's and Lyndon Johnson was running for president, I asked my dad what the difference was between a Republican and a Democrat. Without hesitation, he replied something to the effect that Democrats wanted to help the regular people and Republicans wanted to only help rich people, while letting small remnants of that help "trickle down" to all the rest of us. I must admit this shaped my political views in large part during my growing up years, and I resented any notion that "trickle down" economics was a good thing. As I grew up I learned it was more complicated than that.

In my adulthood I moved to the city and joined the real world of Corporate America for a time. As part of the corporate world I saw first hand that job creation could be a good thing for regular people even if corporations were only operating in their own self interest. So I must admit that when I heard a couple of years ago that Dominion Power was considering spending millions or even billions of dollars on a "clean coal" burning power plant in Wise County, Virginia my first reaction was utter excitement and enthusiasm. I have watched with dismay over the past 30 years the degradation that comes from a struggling economy in the little town of Saint Paul where I grew up many years ago. I haven't lived there since 1975, but I like to visit when I can. It is sad to see that the storefronts that in my childhood held displays of silver tea services and fancy ladies silk scarves are now all boarded over, or convey an invitation to the pool hall or second hand store within. Communities that are dependent on the coal industry are like that, with their fortunes waxing and waning depending upon the plans and successes of their benefactors. It's an unhealthy symbiotic arrangement for a community's long term growth and well being.

The local folks are working on revitalizing downtown Saint Paul, but I think that everyone would admit that without a sustainable source of jobs creating ongoing revenue for the area, revitalization will not last. Supposedly the power plant will not only provide needed jobs at the plant itself, it will also help the coal industry because according to what I've been told, Virginia coal is required to be used as its fuel source. But I also heard some grumblings last year that while hundreds of workers will be needed to build the plant, the number of jobs that the plant will provide long term is a fraction of the number of workers needed for its construction. Hmmmm . . . There will be lots of factors to digest it would seem to develop a conclusive opinion.

Adopting a firm opinion is also complicated by the fact that I'm also one of the biggest tree huggers you'll ever meet, and have been a card carrying member of the Sierra Club for decades. I've dragged my children all over this country to visit America's amazing National Parks system, and I can attest that until you've sat on the banks of Jenny Lake and looked up at the snow capped tops of the Grand Teton Mountains, you haven't really lived at all. So I am torn, especially when I received an email yesterday authored by an Appalachian ex-pat like myself, who lives in Mill Valley, California. This California man is a cousin of one of my dearest friends (who still lives in St. Paul) and is an Episcopal priest. From his home on the West Coast, it seems that he's gone on a one man crusade against the power plant, and what it might do to spoil the natural beauty and environmental soundness of his native Southwest Virginia. I've gotten emails from him about the plant before, but this email announced that a group calling itself the Energy Justice Network plans to hold a protest on Monday at Dominion Power here in Richmond in opposition to the proposed plant.

The message about the protest was addressed to "all mountain lovers, energy activists, students, electricity consumers, and caring people!" While I consider myself to be part of most of those groups, I'm not convinced that a protest is an effective or wise tool to use at this point. The message also states that "[t]here is no such thing as 'clean' coal. Coal's dirty when you dig it, dirty when you prep it for and haul it to market, dirty when you burn it, dirty when you dispose of the ash, and it sure dirties up politics!" I guess my gut feeling is that it would be of no use to protest at Dominion even if I decided I was against the plant. It seems to me that if the group wants to be heard they should have contacted their elected officials to express their concerns. But I can relate to their feelings of frustration and maybe they just want to protest to make themselves feel better, and that's o.k. I guess. I share many of their concerns, and I wonder if as a matter of policy we want to continue our reliance on fossil fuels in general. I'm also very, very troubled about the pollution that will be caused by the plant. But I want to support efforts to jump start the economy of Appalachian Virginia.

When I was practicing law in Kentucky, I once represented one of the nation's largest manufacturers of baseball bats. I loved visiting their factory. It was squeaky clean and brightly lit and the workers were all fiercely proud of the product they were producing. Even though many were assisted by machinery, they were all highly skilled craftspeople who loved what they did. The only byproduct of their work were piles of extremely fragrant shavings of Northern White Ash, which caused no harm to the environment upon disposal. So I found myself thinking today about the baseball bat industry, and how nice it would be if we could find a nice nonpolluting industry to help Southwest Virginia. I'd love it if my native region could get a permanent divorce from the coal industry, as it has been a battered spouse in its marriage with Big Coal for generations.

But I'd also like to see the store fronts of Saint Paul bustling again. In my dreams I can walk along its main street on the sidewalk and look at all the pretty things that are in the windows, just like in my childhood. In these visions, its main business district will always have a Western Auto, a Norton Floral Shop, a Woolworth's and a Willis Department Store instead of empty storefronts. I wish someone could find a way to make this happen without also making a big ugly mess. In my dreams someone besides Big Power and Big Coal will come a courtin' the Perty Miss Southwest Virginia. But if no one else comes, perhaps a less than perfect marriage might be better than her continuing to be an economic spinster.

April A. Cain is an attorney, writer and mother living in Richmond, Virginia. She is a native of Saint Paul, Virginia (Wise County) in far Southwest Virginia


Wise VA Step-Hillbilly said...

Hooray April Cain for addressing a tough issue. We all want industry to boost the area economy, but what kind of industry and at what price to our environment and our communities? I read with interest a statement in the Richmond Times-Dispatch yesterday by Patrick Farley concerning our current method of creating energy from coal that hit home: "How smart is a system that that converts chemical energy (which is actually stored solar energy) to thermal [energy] to mechanical [energy] to electrical [energy] in order to blow dry someone's hair?

As an alternative to coal plants or more prisons, I point to one area that is already being addressed on a growing scale in the region: tourism. Tourism already pumps lots of money into Virginia and Southwest Virginia has two very marketable and unique assets: its mostly unspoiled and peerless geography and its heritage as the birthplace of country music. Parks, trails, nature and country music and music heritage appreciation can be expanded. The Virginia Creeper trail and the Crooked Road are successes to be proud of and vaulted on. I vote for more trails and more authentic country music as clean, mostly green, and job creating areas of enormous growth potential.

Mike Mason said...

Nice, well written post. I've only been to St. Paul a handful of times but it holds a certain affection with me. My great-grandparents ran a hardware and jewelry store in the bustling downtown area until that area started to dry up. It's a side of the family that I have never had contact with but my dad tells stories of spending weeks there in his childhood summers. I would love to see St. Paul come alive again, just not at the expense of the mountains, health concerns and a temporary fix to a larger problem.

Jerry Gray said...

Well-said, Ms. Cain. The dilemma you feel and observe is actually more shared than you realize.

Obviously, the St. Paul plant is being built because there is a demand for the electricity it will generate. Coal is said to produce 50% of the electricity we consume, and the demand is increasing. As oil becomes less and less stable as a source of fuel to power the generators, the demand for coal-fired generators will go up.

Historically, the power plants that burned the coal dug here in Southwest Virginia were located closer to consumers. The coal has been delivered to the plants in other communities by railroad cars.There is only one other coal-burning plant in the Virginia Coalfields, in nearby Russell County at Carbo.

While the protesters certainly have a point, so long as we continue to use electrical energy at the rate we do, and demand that it be cheap, it's going to get dirty somewhere.

I believe the very best strategy would be to also address the demand side, not just the supply side. I think this (the power plant) could also become an opportunity to require the very best in lowering the environmental impact/cost of burning coal.

For example, is it possible to capture the C02 generated from burning coal, and to sequester it in natural gas wells? We have an abundance of them here in Dickenson County.This carbon sequestration technique could be studied.

Can the ash by-products be used to manufacture building materials?
Can we agree that the coal burned doesn't derive from mountain-top removal?

What are the maximum ways to minimize the adverse impacts, recycle, re-use?

I'll leave the demand-side discussions for others, but we coiuld all get by with less.

It seems to me that if we want to have jobs, and a clean environment, we need to give up our demand for cheap electricity, and realize it's not really cheap, the true costs are being paid somewhere, by someone.

April A. Cain said...

Yes, electricity is not really cheap, and our wasteful consumption of energy is a disgrace...from cars that get atrocious gas mileage (you don't see many big SUV's in Europe where gas prices are very high) to the fact that we fail to have even minimal tools for saving energy in our own homes. I lived in England thirty years ago, and even back then our hot water heater was wrapped in an insulating blanket, and had a timer on it so that we set the water to be hot when we were going to need it like early morning and bath time in the evening, but it turned itself off the rest of the time. We are doing so little in this country to take the energy crisis seriously it is shameful.

Jeremy Peters said...


Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for posting on this subject.

It is a subject of great consternation for me as well, my hometown of Coeburn also being just over the from the proposed Virginia City site. Coeburn would be subject to the polluting effects of the power plant as well, depending on how the wind blows.

In recent years, Coeburn has managed to revitalize its downtown area, sprucing up Front Street, converting the old Lays Hardware building into a musical/arts venue and attracting several businesses to the storefronts. And if I were a betting man, I'd say the town has seen increases in revenue from this investment. I would hate to see that progress blighted by the increase in pollution that would be sure to come.

Many have high hopes for increased revenue from the power plant. Historically, very few coal dollars actually benefit the local economy. A pittance is paid in taxes, the 13% or so of the local population engaged in the industry have their earnings, but the rest goes to corporate coffers. Similarly, most of the economic benefit from the plant will leave Southwest Virginia. Dominion is located in Richmond. The contractor that won the bid to build the plant, The Shaw Group, is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

What will come of the Virginia City plant? I hate to say it, but right now it seems almost inevitable. I hope I'm wrong. We all know the coal/energy lobby is as powerful as they come, evidenced by support for the industry at all levels of government. The Wise County Board of Supervisors has already approved a land fill to dispose of the fly ash generated by the plant, as well as approved various tax incentives for Dominion to locate in the county. There are also numerous supporters in Congress trying to slip "clean coal" into the alternative energy debate, complete with subsidies to the industry.

Absent a miraculous shift in political fortunes to change our resource uses, I think several here have hit on an important strategy on which we must focus; consumer education. I was impressed with a tool recently developed by the EPA on energy consumption. It shows the composition your local utility uses to generate electricity and the associated pollutants. I didn't know what my local utility uses to generate electricity, and I bet most others do not either. Coal is consistently above 50 percent, reaching over 70 percent in coal producing areas including most of southwest Virginia.

I think most folks simply are not aware of their electricity use, and therefore, their impact on coal consumption. It has to become part of our national awareness, much like gasoline is becoming. If things don't change, I think we are heading toward an energy crisis that could trigger another economic depression. Consider this article.

Sorry to make this local problem so global. It really bothers me that for short-term profits, the long-term consequences of continuing to invest in coal are not being considered; both for Wise County and our nation.