Groups want new coal-plant review

By Tim Smith, Greenville News

December 11, 2008

COLUMBIA — Two groups opposed to a new coal-fired power plant proposed by Santee Cooper on Wednesday asked that Gov. Mark Sanford convene a meeting of Santee Cooper’s advisory board to review the project.

The request is the latest move by environmental organizations in a war over the issue that is expected to eventually wind up in court.

The groups complain that the coal plant will produce too much pollution and prove too costly to ratepayers.

“With Santee Cooper’s rates and costs dramatically increasing, and with so many serious risks to our health and our way of life, we need oversight and accountability, and we need it now,” said Frank Knapp, CEO of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

But Joel Sawyer, a spokesman for Sanford, said the groups are several years late in asking Sanford to wield any influence on the state-owned utility. Sawyer said those who oppose the plant were absent from the battle Sanford had with lawmakers three years ago over his authority on the Santee Cooper Board.

He said the groups now want Sanford to convene an advisory board, which he described as a “convoluted route” for accountability.

“We’re not sure the (advisory) board has any authority to impact the debate over the coal plant,” he said. “We appreciate their suggestion. IT’s not something we know we’re going to do.”

Sawyer said the governor has not yet taken a stand on the plant but does have concerns about the environmental impact of the project.

According to Knapp, the plant would emit 10 tons of carbon dioxide a year, 7,500 tons of sulfur dioxide, 3,500 tons of nitrogen oxide and almost 1,000 tons of soot.

However, Laura Varn, vice president of communications for Santee Cooper, said she believes the groups are doubling the emissions numbers because the utility has said it is possible it might eventually build two units.

“It will be one of the cleanest power plants in the country when it is built,” she said. “It will be built with the best environmental control technology.”

Knapp said the plant’s initial price tag was $1.99 billion and could end up costing more than $4 billion. Varn said the current price of the plant is $1.25 billion. She said she does not know where the groups’ numbers come from unless they are doubling estimates on the assumption two units will be built.

Ben Gregg, executive director of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, said the plant will present “tremendous legal challenges” because it will be powered by coal. He said plans for the plant amount to a race to build the last coal plant in America.

“Dirty coal is on the way out,” he said.

Knapp said the utility does not have to undergo the same regulatory review process as private and investor-owned utilities. He said while that should happen, the two groups want the issue of the coal plant to be reviewed by the utility’s advisory board, made up of the governor, attorney general, treasurer, comptroller general and secretary of state.

Knapp said while the utility can ignore what the board says, a discussion by the board would at least provide some review.

Varn said the utility is not commenting on what the advisory board should do. But she said construction of the project, which the utility calls the Pee Dee Energy Campus, is “essential.”

“The Pee Dee Energy Campus is essential to meet the state’s future energy needs,” she said. “Coal powers half of America and it still is the nation’s most affordable and abundant fuel source.”

Santee Cooper hopes the plant will be on line by 2014 to help with energy demands before the next nuclear unit starts several years later, Varn said. The utility is awaiting word on permits from the Department of Health and Environmental Control but expects to defend the project in litigation for one to two years as well, she said.

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