Sanford opposes coal plant

Governor says coal too expensive now to fuel state facility

sfretwell@thestate.com jmonk@thestate.comFebruary 12, 2009 

  • 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. today

    Where: State Department of Health and Environmental Control headquarters, 2600 Bull St., 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. Proceedings also will be broadcast via closed-circuit television to a 300-seat overflow auditorium. The hearing may last hours.

Gov. Mark Sanford on Wednesday came out against Santee Cooper’s proposed $2.2 billion coal-fired power plant in Florence County, citing a declining economy and rising coal prices.

The changing political climate — namely the expected tightening of federal regulations on such plants — also makes building one now unaffordable.

“It raises the cost of this plant from $2.5 billion to a $4 billion plant,” Sanford said during a news conference.

The Republican governor said he deliberately made his remarks the day before board members of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control hear arguments for and against upholding an air emissions permit allowing the utility to build the plant.

Officials with the state-owned Santee Cooper said they were “disappointed.” Spokeswoman Laura Varn said Sanford’s figures are short-term predictions, and long-term projections show the plant is needed.

Moreover, she added, some Sanford facts were based on Duke Energy figures that don’t apply to Santee Cooper’s high-growth service area.

The plant has met all state and federal requirements, she said.

While Sanford appoints the boards of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and Santee Cooper, he has no power to effect the final decision on the plant’s construction.

Still, environmentalists applauded Sanford’s position.

“We’ll find out where the DHEC board stands now,” said Dana Beach, director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, one of several groups appealing the Santee Cooper permit at today’s hearing.

Using charts, Sanford outlined his reasons for opposing the plant. Among them:

• The new Obama administration has announced a crackdown on coal-fired plants. Those anti-pollution measures will sharply increase coal plant costs.

• The diving economy — and resulting drop in power demands — means the plant is no longer needed to bridge a 10-year gap until the state builds a nuclear power plant, which Sanford favors.

• When the plant was conceived several years ago, the price of coal was $20-$40 per ton. Last year, coal zoomed to $140 per ton. Those spikes mean the plant, which would burn 4 million tons of coal a year, might cost far more to operate. • The proposed plant would produce particulate matter comparable to what about 15 million cars emit.. Although pollution concerns were part of his decision, Sanford said costs were the deciding factor, noting a half-dozen states recently have halted plans to build coal plants.

Times have changed since the plant was proposed, Sanford said, and South Carolina should recognize that change.

The pollution — mercury, carbon dioxide and particulate matter — worries some residents near the proposed plant on the Great Pee Dee River. Some of the river’s fish are mercury-laced and endanger people who eat them.

“We don’t want that plant,” said Crystal Cannon, 29, who said her 7-year-old son has asthma and autism, conditions she fears will worsen if the plant is built.

But 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 region in eastern South Carolina.

The plant is estimated to produce about 100 permanent jobs, as well as some 1,200 to 1,400 positions — not all filled by local workers — during construction. It could serve up to 500,000 homes and new businesses.

“This facility is vital to South Carolina creating jobs,” said former U.S. Energy Secretary and S.C. Gov. Jim Edwards, in Columbia to support the plant.

Earlier this month, the state’s legislative leaders went to Washington to ask the state’s Congressional delegation for special protection for coal, which generates 61 percent of the state’s energy.

They were not pleased with Sanford on Wednesday.

“For the governor to come out and oppose this really bothers me,” said Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, in whose home county the plant would be located. “Does he leave South Carolina in the dark? Does he cause us to shut down businesses? Does it cause us to lose employment? The answer to all those is yes.”

Senate leader Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, said of Sanford, “If he’s wrong, this state will be facing brownouts and blackouts and he’ll be gone from office — and it will be too late for us to correct this.”

Sanford stressed building a nuclear plant — Santee Cooper and SCE&G want to build two reactors — is the way of the future.

Efficiency, conservation and renewable energy should be part of the solution, too, he said.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537. Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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