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Group: Coal plant wrong answer

ATLANTA - A proposed coal-burning power plant in Southwest Georgia is a dirty, outdated solution to the state's growing energy demands, several of the project's critics said Tuesday.

A coalition of environmental advocates held a news conference to call attention to Thursday's deadline for public comment on a planned 1,200-megawatt coal-fired plant in Early County, which would be the first built in the state since the 1980s.

"We're lining up for a sprint in the wrong direction on energy policy in Georgia,'' said Jennette Gayer, an advocate with Environment Georgia, a statewide nonprofit group.

Longleaf Energy Associates, a subsidiary of New Jersey-based LS Power, has been working on the project for several years. It would produce enough electricity to power 1.2 million homes.

The $2 billion plant, which could be under construction as early as next spring, would bring 100 high-paying jobs to a rural county desperate for such an economic boost.

But that would be a poor tradeoff for the cocktail of unhealthy pollution the plant would emit, said Felicia Davis, program manager for the group Mothers and Others for Clean Air.

The mix includes more than 220 pounds of mercury annually, 6,400 tons of sulfur dioxide, 3,700 tons of nitrogen dioxide and 10 tons of carbon dioxide. Between them, those chemicals have been linked to asthma and other respiratory diseases, heart attacks, fish that are unsafe to eat and global warming.

"It is wrong to have communities having to choose between pollution and economic development,'' Davis said.

Davis and others who spoke at Tuesday's news conference argued that state environmental policy makers should put more emphasis on energy efficiency and conservation and on developing renewable sources of power rather than allow a new coal-burning plant.

However, they said that if the Environmental Protection Division approves the plant, it should be with state-of-the technology that reduces emissions by converting coal to gas before burning it.

But Michael Vogt, director of project development for LS Power, said coal gassification is still such an experimental technology that power-generating companies can't get financing institutions to underwrite projects that use it.

"It isn't proven ... (and) electric generation needs to be highly reliable,'' he said.

Vogt said LS Power supports renewable energy and, in fact, operates a wind plant in Nevada. But he said renewable technologies haven't been developed sufficiently to meet the ever-increasing power demands of a fast-growing state like Georgia.

The EPD has conducted two question-and-answer sessions and a public hearing on the project in Blakely, with the plant getting a mixed reception from local residents.

While some have talked enthusiastically about the economic impact the plant would bring, others have expressed concerns about the pollution.

EPD Assistant Director Jim Ussery said the agency will consider all of the public comments it gets before Thursday's deadline. If EPD officials don't make any changes in the four permits Longleaf is seeking, final permits could be issued by late this year or early in 2007, he said.