Smoke on the Water: Stopping a Coal-fired Power Plant in Arkansas

Benjamin Krain
Benjamin Krain
Benjamin Krain
Benjamin Krain
Benjamin Krain

Smoke on the Water: Stopping a Coal-fired Power Plant in Arkansas

Nationwide, coal-fired power plants appear to be on the way out. But in southwest Arkansas--next to some of the finest fish and wildlife habitat anywhere--one may be on the way in. 

By Ted Williams/Photography by Benjamin Krain
Published: January-February 2008

"Should America place a moratorium on coal-fired power plants?" I inquired of environmental attorney Rick Addison. He answered with an emphatic "No."

Addison represents four duck-hunting clubs in southwest Arkansas administratively contesting a proposal by American Electric Power (AEP) and its subsidiary in Arkansas, Louisiana, and northeast Texas--Southwestern Electric Power Company, or SWEPCO--to build a 600-megawatt, pulverized-coal plant in Hempstead County, 15 miles northeast of Texarkana. The site is close to some of the best fish and wildlife habitat in America, including a federal wilderness area, a national wildlife refuge, and 30,000 acres of interlocking flood-basin swamps, cypress brakes, bottomland hardwoods, savannas, and wet grasslands. Locals, who tend to be economically disadvantaged, generally see the project as a get-out-of-jail-free card. They call those who question it rich NIMBYs from away.

Addison continued: "We shouldn't have a moratorium on coal-fired power plants. We should never build another one. Pulverized coal [de rigueur, and a slightly more efficient fuel than whole coal] is not a ship we should launch into a 50-year night when its era is about over. Regardless of technology and permitting, it emits far too many pollutants. It's London 1880 brought forward in small increments to the 21st century."

Coal-burning plants are under assault all across America. Addison also represents environmental groups that sued Dallas-based energy corporation TXU for its plan to build 11 new pulverized-coal power plants in Texas. That ongoing action--along with public outrage and a $32 billion private-equity buyout of TXU--has persuaded the owners to cancel eight of those plants. Last June Florida enacted a law requiring utilities to consider renewable energy sources and conservation programs in the permitting process for all new power plants. California and Washington have discouraged coal generation by prohibiting utilities from obtaining power from sources that pollute more than modern gas-burning plants. A year ago Oregon denied PacificCorp permission to charge consumers for costs of new coal plants outside the state. And last September Oklahoma denied an AEP subsidiary permission to build a coal plant in the northern part of the state.

In October AEP ended an eight-year court battle with eight eastern states, 13 environmental groups, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by agreeing to spend at least $4.6 billion in pollution control and pay $15 million in civil fines and $60 million in cleanup and mitigation costs. The feds are calling it the largest environmental settlement in U.S. history.

Coal is expensive for the public as well as utilities, and costs are measured in more than just dollars. Coal-fired power plants are the worst industrial polluters in the United States, spewing something like a third of the carbon dioxide (the main agent of global warming) produced by industry, roughly 40 percent of the mercury (a deadly nerve poison), a quarter of the nitrogen oxides (a main agent of smog), and two-thirds of the sulfur dioxide (the main agent of acid precipitation). The EPA reports that sulfur dioxide aggravates heart disease and asthma, that nitrogen oxides damage lung tissue, and that, together, these pollutants form fine particles that do both.

And yet American utilities are scrambling to build as many as 121 new coal plants. Why? With some of the data on global warming, including last summer's massive collapse of the Arctic ice cap and predictions that summer ice could disappear in 32 years, Congress is poised to control CO2 emissions. And the utilities want to get as many plants grandfathered as possible.

They pulled this same stunt in 1977 when they talked Congress into exempting old plants from the Clean Air Act because they'd soon be "replaced." But rather than replace the old plants, they used them for more capacity, and many of them are still polluting. Under a program called New Source Review, utilities had to install the "best available retrofit technology" if they rebuilt or expanded a plant in ways that increased pollution. Instead they gained unfair cost advantages by implementing massive, enormously expensive modifications in their oldest, dirtiest facilities--thereby increasing both pollution and production--modifications they then passed off as "routine maintenance." The feds and states finally got fed up with the ruse and, in the late 1990s, sued 13 companies for illegally expanding, sans retrofits, 51 power plants in 12 states. This was part of the recent AEP settlement.

Still, AEP is as environmentally responsible as utilities get. In its hometown of Columbus, Ohio, it is helping transform the degraded Scioto riverfront into an attractive public park--just one of many examples. It invests heavily in energy-conservation promotion and provides incentives to reduce energy use. Throughout its 11-state service area, it makes a genuine effort to be a good neighbor. Could it be that the duck hunters and environmentalists in southwest Arkansas are fretting needlessly?

Absolutely, according to AEP and SWEPCO. Melissa McHenry, AEP's corporate media relations manager, informs me that one of the company's major problems is keeping wildlife, notably deer, away from its coal plants. "It [coal generation] doesn't have an impact," she says. "There's wildlife everywhere. You'll see cranes and egrets. The photographers can't believe it." And SWEPCO's president, Venita McCellon-Allen, assures me that "there's no reason the [Arkansas] plant can't fit in beautifully with the environment."

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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