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Pondering a power plant

Rural county weighs benefits against risk

BLAKELY - A classic economic development debate of jobs versus the environment is raging in a corner of what politicians and policymakers from affluent metro Atlanta refer to as "the other Georgia.''

Most people in and around Blakely, a rural community 50 miles west of Albany near the Alabama line, welcome an out-of-state energy company's proposal to build Georgia's first coal-burning power plant in a quarter century as a home run after years of striking out with one prospective business tenant after another.

"I haven't heard a negative thing,'' said June Merritt, a member of the Early County Development Authority who chaired a local task force that examined the pros and cons of the project. "It's more like, 'When is it coming? How can I apply for a job?'''

But not everyone in town is standing up and saluting New Jersey-based LS Power's 1,200-megawatt Longleaf Energy Station.

Members of Friends of the Chattahoochee, a local group allied with state and national environmental organizations, say highly polluting coal-fired plants are remnants of an outmoded technology that should have no place in the nation's 21st century energy portfolio.

"Coal was a fossil,'' said Dr. Sammy Prim, a retired radiologist and board member of Friends of the Chattahoochee who lives in Gordon, Ala., across the Chattahoochee River from the site of the proposed plant. "It needs to stay a fossil.''

Coal is back

Indeed, it did appear for a time that coal-burning power plants were about to be relegated to history.

During the 1990s, gas-fired plants sprang up in Georgia and across the nation as a cleaner-burning alternative to coal.

But the economics of the energy industry began to change during this decade as increased demand for natural gas - brought on in part by the growing number of gas-burning plants - drove up prices. As a result, coal has become competitive again, said Michael Vogt, director of project development for LS Power.

"If you look at the coal reserves versus natural gas reserves ... it's a much shorter supply of natural gas,'' he said. "That results in volatility and high prices.''

Vogt said LS Power has set its sights on the Southeast because the region's rapidly growing population means an ever-increasing demand for electricity.

He said Early County quickly emerged as a prime candidate for a new coal-fired plant because the area has an abundant supply both of rail capacity for shipping the coal and of high-voltage transmission lines for moving the electricity the plant would generate.

Also, the company has worked out an agreement with Georgia-Pacific, which operates a nearby paper mill, to share water drawn from the Chattahoochee, Vogt said.

The $2 billion project would create 1,300 jobs at the peak of a five-year construction period and about 120 permanent jobs after the plant is built, both a huge economic jolt for a county of 12,000 people saddled with a poverty rate of 24.3 percent in 2000, almost twice the state average.

"This will provide a tax base in future years and put us in a position to make the community grow,'' said Billy Fleming, the fourth-generation publisher of the Early County News, the local weekly paper, who supports the project.

While the plant's generating capacity would place it in the middle of the pack among Georgia's 10 existing coal-burning plants, it would power 1.2 million homes.

Vogt said the company plans to sell the electricity wholesale to utilities in Georgia and would only sell the power out of state if it can't find enough takers here.

Need questioned

But the project's critics say there's not going to be enough new demand in Georgia for that much power and questioned the wisdom of building a polluting plant in an area that doesn't need the electricity.

Tom Bell, a board member of Friends of the Chattahoochee who owns more than 800 acres adjacent to the plant site, said he's convinced the company will ship the electricity south to Florida.

But Fleming said where the power goes is irrelevant.

"Do these folks think we've been eating all the corn we grow in this county or wearing all the cotton?'' he asked. "We export it.''

To the project's critics, however, there's a big difference between corn, cotton and electricity produced by burning coal.

Georgia already features two of the nation's biggest polluting coal-fired power plants in the country in Plant Scherer in Monroe County and Plant Bowen in Bartow County, both operated by Georgia Power Co.

Coal-burning plants are major generators of pollutants linked to various serious and even life-threatening maladies.

Nitrogen dioxide is a major ingredient in summer outbreaks of smog that trigger asthma attacks. Sulfur dioxide contributes to the formulation of particulate matter, fine particles that invade the lungs and have been linked to premature death.

Carbon dioxide has been found to be a leading contributor to global warming.

Prim said he first saw the effects of such heavy industrial pollution years ago when he had a pediatric practice in Birmingham, Ala., during the heyday of that city's steel mills.

"You didn't have to listen to radio to tell how bad the pollution counts were,'' he said. "You could see from the number of kids coming in with asthma.''

New technology

The Longleaf project's opponents readily concede that technology has improved since Scherer, Branch and Georgia's other coal-burning plants were built decades ago.

Tougher federal standards have forced power companies to install scrubbers on smoke stacks that greatly reduce emissions.

But the environmental groups fighting the project are criticizing the state Environmental Protection Division for not insisting that LS Power use the latest technology, which converts the coal into gas before burning it.

According to written comments filed by the Atlanta-based Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest, using what is known as IGCC technology at Longleaf would reduce yearly emissions of six pollutants from the 15,964 tons contained in the company's proposal to just 3,164 tons.

"The emissions limits selected do not reflect state of the art for pollution controls,'' said Justine Thompson, the center's executive director. "Georgia deserves better.''

But the EPD considers IGCC experimental technology. It's being used at just two coal plants in the nation.

"It holds great promise for the future, but it's not ready today,'' said Jim Ussery, the state agency's assistant director.

Vogt said LS Power wouldn't be able to secure bank financing for the project using IGCC even if it wanted to try out what he says is still a risky technology.

Benefits uncertain

Beyond concerns over technology and whether the additional electricity is needed, the plant's critics also question its economic benefits to Early County.

Bobby McLendon, president of Friends of the Chattahoochee, said he expects more people who move to the area to work at the plant would choose to live over in Dothan, Ala., than Blakely because there's more to do there.

"There's nothing to spend money on in Blakely,'' he said.

Prim said most of the skilled jobs the plant would create likely would go to newcomers brought in by the company because the local work force doesn't have the skills to do that kind of work.

Fleming conceded that community leaders have some work to do if Early County is to achieve maximum benefit from the plant.

Part of that would involve beefing up work force training being offered at Bainbridge College's new Blakely site, he said.

Also, more needs to be done to make the community attractive for the newcomers - including the offshoot businesses that a new plant would generate - to live and shop, Fleming said.

"If we sit on our hands and don't do anything, they'll land in Dothan or Albany,'' he said.

The years of debate over the project are about to come to a head. After two question-and-answer sessions and a public hearing earlier this year, the EPD could give final approval for the plant next month or early in 2007.

The project's supporters are hoping for a spring groundbreaking. But the EPD's Ussery isn't betting on it.

He said he expects environmental groups to appeal if the agency gives the go-ahead for the plant.