Gooze Views

Peter Galuszka


Strife in the Coalfields


Dominion’s plans to build a coal-fired plant stir worries about greenhouse gases, ozone, smog, dirty coal trucks and mountaintop removal.


Outside Oxbow Center civic hall in St. Paul one night just before Christmas, blue and yellow CSX diesels growled as they pulled a unit train filled with loaded coal hoppers. Inside, more than a dozen concerned mountain folk listened intently as a young man with a beard worked his Apple laptop through a Power Point presentation.


“And this is what mountaintop removal looks from above,” said Mike McCoy, an environmental activist with the Charlottesville office of Appalachian Voices, an ecology and cultural group. The aerial photo showed a gigantic moonscape of what was once a mountain.


Flipping his laptop keys, McCoy registered to-scale images of the St. Peter’s Basilica, the Taj Mahal and the Golden Gate Bridge to give sense of size to the destruction. All easily fit within the surface mine that McCoy said was in Wise County, the state’s major coal-producing county and home to St. Paul.


Mountaintop removal is but one of the curses that ecological activists say will befall the coalfields of Southwest Virginia if Dominion is allowed to proceed with a 585 megawatt, $1.6 billion coal-fired plant nearby that will churn out electricity to 146,000 homes in Dominion’s market area far to the east.


Among their fears: The plant would generate huge volumes of greenhouses gases, inflict pollution that causes potentially fatal respiratory disease, employ heavy coal trucks that will crumble highways, and encourage mountaintop removal, a method of surface mining on a vast scale that Virginia has so far largely escaped.


A number of local citizens and even the normally staid regional newspaper, the Bristol Herald Courier, have joined forces in opposing Dominion’s project. Underscoring all of their worries is the region’s experience with another coal-fired electrical plant: American Electric Power’s Cabo plant, built in the 1950s a few miles from St. Paul, which is the second worst air polluter in the state.



AEP's Cabo plant. (Photo by Camille A. Galuszka)


Countering the activists, Dominion officials assert that their so-called Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center will be among the least-polluting new coal-fired facilities in the country. It will use what is called a circulating fluidized bed technology that should greatly reduce emissions. It is supposed to be so efficient that it can burn abandoned piles of coal, called “gobs,” along with logs from fallen trees, instead of high-priced, low-sulfur coal. Dominion needs the new coal-fired plant to help meet new demand, says utility spokesman Dan Genest. The electricity it generates will go only to Virginia customers of Dominion, and the energy is needed to meet the extra 4,000 megawatts of power that the utility estimates it must generate by 2017, Genest says.


A key hurdle for Dominion will come Tuesday, Jan. 8, when the State Corporation Commission will hold a hearing on issuing a permit. Another needed permit would come from the State Air Pollution Control Board, which has been considering the matter for at least three years. If the two permits are approved, Dominion could start building the new plant about two miles west of St. Paul on U.S. 58 by this April with completion in 2012.


Back in St. Paul, opposition forces are massing for a vigorous assault. “We’re preparing a petition a mile long,” says Kathy Selvage, a resident of Stephens who endured the effects of mountaintop removal next to her Wise County house. She and dozens of other activists plan on chartering buses to make certain their voices are heard at the SCC. A slew of ecology groups is involved, including the Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Southern Environmental Law Center and Appalachian Voices.


Indeed, it’s hard not to sympathize with Selvage and other residents of the Southwest Virginia coalfields. Coal has historically been a boon and bane to the hardscrabble and largely Scots-Irish settlers who have inhabited a part of the Old Dominion different from any other. The region’s western tip is about as far west as Detroit. Several other state capitals are closer than the one in Richmond where many Virginians long regarded mountaineers as alien and laughable hillbillies.


When coal mining began in earnest at the turn of the 20th century, shyster land agents from far-away companies and law firms preyed upon the ignorance of the locals to win one-sided mineral rights. Deep mines provided jobs that were dirty, unsafe and payable only in script or company money. Scores died in accidents. Attempts to organize unions were brutally put down by some mine operators and their hired thugs.


Starting in the 1940s, surplus earth-moving equipment came on the market from such distant spots as coral-covered Pacific islands where they had been used to build air bases for Japan-bound bombers. Throughout Appalachia, the gear ripped apart the sides of mountains to get at coal cheaply and without care for the aftermath. I know of this personally since I spent part of my childhood in central West Virginia where I played on abandoned strip mines with their left-behind earth movers and skeletons of animals dead from the yellow, sulfurous ponds of toxic, coal-tainted water.


One well-worn mountain parable states that if the cards had been played right long ago, the entire Appalachian region from Pennsylvania to Alabama could be brimming over with money from energy projects with wonderful schools, hospitals, parks and other services. If anything, the opposite has been true. Wealth flowed out of the area into the pockets of unscrupulous coal operators and big- time mineral lease holders such as railroads and oil companies. Appalachia became a code word for poor health and bad education. Throughout much of the Virginia coalfields, unemployment rates had traditionally been in the double digits until a recent back-to-work program lowered the rate to about 5 percent – better than it had been, but still worse than in the rest of the Old Dominion.


The people of Wise and adjacent Russell County, however, have concrete reasons for their fears about Dominion's St. Paul facility. AEP’s Clinch River Plant at Carbo is the No. 2 air polluter in the state, emitting more than 37 million tons of waste a year. As the Bristol Herald Courier notes, smog from plants like Carbo contributes to asthma and is a factor in fatal heart attacks. If built, Dominion’s new plant would place between No. 8 and 9 on the list of top state air polluters.


Coal is an attractive prospect for utilities. AEP, based in Columbus, Ohio, is one of the most coal-dependant utilities in the U.S., using massive coal resources up and down the Ohio River Valley and in Appalachia. Some of its giant generating plants are “mine-mouth” facilities located adjacent to operating coal mines, so there is no significant transportation cost for the fuel.


Such favorable economies make AEP one of the cheapest power producers in the country, giving it a strong advantage as it tries to market electricity beyond its normal markets to areas served by high-cost utilities. But AEP is also one of the country’s biggest single polluters. Not long ago, attorneys general in Massachusetts and New York banded together to oppose AEP’s pollution while it was trying to sell cheaper electricity in the Northeast. Pollutants from AEP’s plants were causing smog and ozone carried by winds to the Northeast, while the Midwestern utility enjoyed the revenue from out-of-state power sales.


AEP is under constant legal pressure to clean up its sites. The Carbo plant, for example, is under a federal court order to restrict emissions by 2009.


Residents around St. Paul couldn’t ask for a better (or worse) example than the Carbo plant. But Dominion says its Virginia City facility will be light years ahead in clean technology.


According to Dominion's Genest, the  fluidized bed technology will dramatically decrease the new plant's pollutants. The technology, which has been around for at least 30 years, uses air jets to keep coal suspended mid-air as it burns. Pulverized limestone is sprayed into the flames to draw off much of the polluting sulfur dioxide. The resulting material is gypsum, which Dominion hopes can be sold for other uses. Moreover, Genest says, a dry scrubber system will reduce about 95 percent of nitrous oxides and mercury and most of the fly ash.


The fluidized-bed system is so efficient that it can burn lower grades of coal ranging from 4,000 to 11,000 BTUs per pound, Genest says. Recently, some utilities had to go to a much-higher cost coal ranging in the 13,000 BTUs per pound and 0.7 percent sulfur levels to meet air pollution standards. Genest says that the new technology will allow Dominion to scour the Southwest Virginia fields looking for “gob” coal that had been abandoned as unsuitable at surface mines, deep mines and preparation plants. Drawing down the gob piles, which leach acidic run-off into creeks and streams, will be a significant environmental bonus.


The fluidized-bed technology also will be able to burn fallen logs in forests, although Genest says that Dominion will not log live trees for fuel. As much as 20 percent of the plant’s total fuel could come from wood.


Some local residents remain unconvinced. Pete Ramey of Big Stone Gap, who has worked in the coal mining industry for three decades, says a truly clean technology to burn coal hasn’t been invented. “The industry refuses to invest in clean technology,” he says.


Ramey’s not the only naysayer. The U.S. Forest Service complained that the project could pollute the ecological sensitive Pisgah National Forest and its Linville Gorge Wilderness not far away in northwestern North Carolina. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality raised similar concerns. Last month, Dominion reached agreement with the state and U.S. Forest Service to decrease its sulfur dioxide emissions, purchase permanent offsets for sulfur dioxide emissions and buy sulfur dioxide allowances from other polluters, Genest says.


Even so, activists raise still more worries:

  • Local roads already have too many heavy coal trucks that mash up pavement and spread coal dust; Dominion will overload local roads with more. Genest confirms that Dominion does plan to use trucks to bring in coal. The utility predicts that it will use about 580 truckloads of coal a day but that is only about 3.2 percent of the total daily vehicular volume of 18,400 daily on U.S. 58. A CSX rail line runs nearby and a spur could eventually be built to the plant.

  • The plant won’t bring much to the party in terms of payroll. True, more than 800 workers will be employed during the four-year construction phase, but the number will fall drastically when the plant goes in operation.

  • The Dominion plant will increase the practice of mountaintop removal in Virginia. However, there seems to be some confusion over the definition of “mountaintop” removal. Surface or strip mining has been going on for years in Virginia. “Mountaintop” removal, which began in earnest in the 1990s in West Virginia and Kentucky, involves stripping a mountain down from the top to reach coal seams. Instead of being pushed back into something close to the original mountain contour, the overburden is shoved into stream and creek valleys, creating havoc with wildlife and watersheds. McCoy of Appalachian Voices asserts that there are about 30 or more mountaintop removal projects in the state, involving about 25 percent of Wise County.

However, Mike Abbott of the state Division of Mined Land Reclamation in Big Stone Gap says that under state definitions, “mountaintop” removal includes mines where the state has granted variance from reclamation laws that require that the overburden be pushed back to the original contour. Only six of those variances have been granted so far and, of them, only two are in Wise County. Genest of Dominion says that the utility hasn’t decided where to source its fuel, effectively dodging the issue and raising questions about media statements that Dominion will use only Virginia coal.

  • Virginia should be looking for ways to conserve energy and generate new power through non-polluting sources such as windmills, activists say, claiming that Dominion could capture 585 megawatts of power through conservation alone. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s new energy plan supposedly calls for similar goals.

As the back and forth shows, the issues confronting the coalfields are exceptionally myriad and complex. As anyone who has ever lived in the coalfields, including me, can tell you, even restoring the land's original contour has its limitations: Once the top soil is stripped out, not much will grow in the generally toxic dirt pushed back. I remember what ridges in West Virginia looked like in the 1960s – horrible gashes of earth that stretched mile after mile. They’ve now been pushed back, thanks to a 1977 federal law, but they will still be scarred forever with bands of vegetation-less “dead zones.”


In the Dominion case, there is yet another issue that confounds. Dominion does need to find new generating capacity. It is trying other forms of power, such as adding to its North Anna nuclear power station. As Bacon’s Rebellion has recently reported (see "Rethinking North Anna"), that plan has its own issues surrounding a new and uncertified model of a nuclear reactor. The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center cannot produce a Chernobyl-style nuclear disaster, obviously. But no matter how you slice it, the new plant will contribute to greenhouse gases at levels impossible at a nuclear plant or a windmill. Conservation alone can’t serve all future power demands.


Do I have the answer? I do not, although I have my doubts about the new coal-fired plant. One thing is certain, however: I’d hate to see coalfield people get screwed over yet again just so the nouveau riche in Loudoun or Prince William or Henrico can enjoy their McMansions.


-- January 5, 2008
















Peter Galuszka is a veteran journalist living in Chesterfield County. View his profile here.


(Photo credit: Maria Galuszka.)