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

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

SWEPCO, which is hawking the project as economic elixir, has found a rapt audience in Hempstead County, where 18.8 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In December 2006 the company announced that the plant would create an annual payroll of $12 million in jobs. The following September, having fomented 10 months of celebration, it allowed that maybe the figures would be more like $9 million in direct and indirect jobs.

I asked vocal proponent Mike Cox, who owns a liquor store in Miller County just over the Hempstead County line, why he supported the project. "I feel it will benefit our economy," he declared. Was he worried about pollution? "No," he said. "This plant should be more technologically advanced than the one in Gentry. They have walking trails up there. They have an eagle lookout. They have a lake. I'd estimate that 80 to 90 percent of the people around here are for the new plant. Most of the state senators and representatives from our area are for it. The opposition is a small but very wealthy minority. They are spending big bucks on high-powered attorneys trying to stop this. And they've done a real good job. I think they have nitpicked SWEPCO to death."

Hempstead County is dry, so provided you follow SWEPCO procedure and don't figure in any of the real costs (such as damage done by stack emissions to human health), the collective thirst of construction workers will indeed "benefit the economy," especially Cox. He also has it right about the proposed plant being "technologically more advanced." According to current construction plans, it will involve what AEP calls "ultra-supercritical" generation, unproven but which supposedly is marginally more efficient. Local proponents are much impressed. Addison guffaws. "When are they going to run out of adjectives?" he asks. Reynolds expects the next increment to be "ultra-magnificent-supercritical."

Possibly Cox and his allies would be more concerned about pollution if they consulted a source other than SWEPCO. Even if the firm's claim that mercury falling on hunt-club property "would be no more than the size of a golf ball" were correct (it isn't, because the calculation relies on a prevailing wind direction of northwest, exactly opposite of what it really is), McCellon-Allen is wrong in her proclamation that "there should [therefore] be no concern." A little mercury is a lot. That's why health advisories for, say fish, are calibrated in parts per billion. When mercury hits water, bacteria transform it to methylmercury--a neurotoxin that magnifies in the food chain like DDT, destroying nerve tissue, especially in young children and fetuses. Symptoms include loss of hearing, memory, and balance as well as slurred speech and blurred vision. What's more, the acid precipitation produced by coal plants mobilizes naturally occurring soil-bound mercury. Regardless of how much mercury the coal plant will or won't dump on hunt-club property, it will annually belch out 300 pounds.

Mercury and other coal-plant emissions, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, are no less dangerous to fish and wildlife than to humans, causing direct and indirect mortality by reducing species diversity, population density, reproductive capacity, immunity to disease, and food supply. By eliminating insect predators, coal pollution has caused irruptions of insect pests. Acid precipitation from coal pollution kills aquatic organisms and reduces and/or weakens species that depend on them--fish-eating birds and mammals, for instance. Power lines fragment habitat, encourage the growth of invasive exotic plants, and kill birds directly. In one study a coal plant's power line that crossed a water body was seen to kill between 200 and 400 waterfowl in a single autumn.


Documents, statements, and behavior issuing from SWEPCO and its parent, AEP, suggest a company madly rushing to beat impending carbon regulations. Consider the environmental-impact statement (EIS) required by Arkansas law. SWEPCO's ignores the no-action alternative--a fatal flaw. And in some 350 pages (not counting attachments) there are less than three pages of alternatives analysis and no environmental analysis of alternative sites or cumulative impacts like offsite pollution. Impacts on endangered species are not considered.

So deficient is the document that the Arkansas Public Service Commission has twice criticized it in writing. Also criticizing the EIS have been the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The EPA has informed SWEPCO that it won't approve the project until the company demonstrates that it can't build the plant somewhere else where it wouldn't dewater, pollute, and otherwise harm as many wetlands, and until it demonstrates it has no choice but to degrade public land sensitive to air pollution. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality has not issued an air-pollution permit. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not issued a 404 (wetlands) permit.

Why did AEP elect to build a mammoth coal-fired power plant next to the wildlife-rich river bottoms and swamplands of southwest Arkansas? "There were a lot of reasons," avers McCellon-Allen. "The site has the water and the rail access we needed. It's in an area that needs additional generation, and there was significant support from the community leaders in that area."

The last of those reasons seems to have weighed most heavily. The two tiny settlements involved--McNab and Fulton--are outside the jurisdiction of any municipality and primarily low income and minority, with scant resources or inclination to mount a political challenge. Rail access is present but dilapidated, water access--with endangered species and wetlands issues--problematic. Transmission capacity is grossly inadequate.

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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