Power plant would be "grave" threat to health, DNR head says

Santee Cooper chief objects to timing of comments

jmonk@thestate.comFebruary 11, 2009 

Santee Cooper is proposing to build a large, new coal-fired power plant in lower Florence County. This is one of the state's major environmental issues. Here, Santee Cooper's Cross Station coal burning power plant. The scrubber system can be seen at the bottom of this stack.

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.COM — The State

  • If you go

    WHAT: An appeals hearing for an industrial air emissions permit. The DHEC board is being asked to uphold or invalidate the permit that allows construction of a $2.2 billion coal-fired plant in Florence County. It is uncertain whether board members will vote the same day they hear comments.

    WHEN: 10 a.m. Thursday

    WHERE: State Department of Health and Environmental Control headquarters, 2600 Bull St. (at Bull and Harden streets), Columbia

    OF NOTE: People should arrive well before the meeting, as most of the 30-odd seats in the board room will be filled by lawyers and witnesses. The proceedings also will be broadcast via closed-circuit television to a 300-seat overflow auditorium. The hearing may last hours.

The head of the state Department of Natural Resources has denounced Santee Cooper’s proposed $2 billion coal-fired plant in Florence County.

DNR director John Frampton said he “cannot be silent” on the proposed plant’s “grave” threat to human health as well as the dangers to South Carolina’s air, rivers and fish.

Frampton made his comments in a letter to the Department of Health and Environmental Control, whose board on Thursday will consider whether to uphold an air emissions permit allowing utility giant Santee Cooper to build the plant.

“DNR is opposed to the permitting, construction and operation of this facility,” Frampton wrote in his letter, dated Friday and obtained Tuesday by The State newspaper. Frampton’s seven-member board OK’d the letter.

Santee Cooper chief Lonnie Carter, in turn, wrote a letter to DHEC, denouncing Frampton’s comments as an “11th hour attempt to circumvent DHEC’s regulatory process.” For three years, he wrote, “no one from DNR has ever told us that they objected to the issuance of the air permit or opposed the facility.”

Carter said DHEC’s board should ignore Frampton’s letter.

DNR’s opposition sets up a showdown between one of the state’s key environmental guardians and its largest electrical producer and coal burner, also a state agency.

Thursday, DHEC’s seven-member board will hear environmental groups’ appeal of its staff’s decision in December to grant an air emissions permit for the proposed 2,700-acre plant.

The permit would allow Santee Cooper to build a double-boiler plant, which reports show would emit 93 pounds of mercury, thousands of tons of toxics and particulate matter, and 10 million tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide a year.

Santee Cooper and some of the state’s most influential business groups say the coal plant must be built to maintain adequate power and attract more industry to the job-starved Pee Dee in eastern South Carolina. The 1,320-megawatt plant will produce about 100 permanent jobs as well as about 1,400 positions during construction.

DHEC officials are expecting overflow crowds at the hearing.

While proposed coal plants have been rejected or scaled back in many states because of environmental concerns, most officials in South Carolina have been silent on the new plant.

Far from wanting to limit coal-fired power plants, some of the state’s legislative leaders recently went to Washington to ask the state’s congressional delegation to protect the state’s coal-fired electric plant culture.

Frampton, director of the state Department of Natural Resources since 2003, is the first major state official to oppose the plant.

Gov. Mark Sanford, who appoints the boards of DNR, Santee Cooper and DHEC, has expressed concerns about the plant. But he has stopped short of saying it should not proceed.

However, his office said the governor is expected to make a statement on the plant today.

Also today, former U.S. Energy Secretary and former Republican Gov. Jim Edwards will be among a group speaking in Columbia in favor of the plant.

In his letter to DHEC, Frampton said DNR’s staff had researched the plant’s dangers. The DNR staff’s key points:

• A worsening of environmental mercury pollution that builds up in fish poses “grave” risks to humans. Coal plants emit mercury, which is absorbed by fish in rivers. People eating these fish risk brain damage.

• Allowing the release of an additional 10 million tons of carbon dioxide a year carries “the risk of enormous consequences” because the gas is building up in Earth’s atmosphere and can cause “irreversible, global climatic impacts by the year 2035.”

• Constructing large coal ash ponds at the plant could be harmful. Recently, Tennessee had an “environmental disaster of enormous consequences” when dams surrounding a coal-fired power plant’s ash ponds broke. The new plant would burn millions of tons of coal a year, and ash eventually could be put into gigantic pits near environmentally sensitive limestone bluffs along the Great Pee Dee River.

Such issues, Frampton wrote, “clearly present unacceptable impacts, costs and risks for the natural environment and the citizens of South Carolina.”

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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