A Coal Plant Proposal Gets Even Dirtier


oal-burning electricity plants are a hot button for environmentalists who somehow have shown more interest in Dominion Virginia Power’s $1.5 billion station in Wise County than the much bigger, $5 billion plus one planned by a group of electrical cooperatives not all that far from Colonial Williamsburg.

The project is planned by the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative which is based outside of Richmond and represents 14 coops in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. The plan is for two, 750-megawatt coal plants in the little town of Dendron in Surry County.
What is curious about the ODEC project is that it is much closer to tourism attractions and theme parks in Williamsburg, Jamestown and other spots. It would be the state’s biggest polluter and when I covered the issue earlier, state air pollution officials told me flatly that the amount of toxic mercury the plant would emit is many times too much. The mercury would shoot into the atmosphere and then fall as tiny particles on the already pollution-stressed James River and Chesapeake Bay.
So, it is intriguing that The Virginian-Pilot has a story that takes the issue to new dimension, such as that ODEC’s plan is splitting Surry County’s 6,000 plus folk along black and white and have and have not lines.
The Pilot says that blacks tend to want to plant because it would provide about 200 permanent jobs not including the 3,000 temporary construction jobs. Whites tend to oppose it because it will be huge, polluting and require about 500 noisy and dusty gondolas of coal coming in from the Norfolk Southern mainline every week.
Some of the haves say they don’t want their retirement homes in sleepy Surry squandered. Some of the have nots say they’d rather get a well-paying job at the plant rather than have to wake up before dawn to catch the Jamestown Ferry so they can change bed linen at the posh Williamsburg Inn.
And so it goes. There have been accusations of subterfuge and even bribery. ODEC, which needs about 50 permits for the behemoth, has launched an aggressive campaign for it, such as inviting ministers out for fried chicken and barbecue suppers.
I know how they operate. A year ago when I proposed doing a story about the project for Richmond magazine, ODEC immediately called and emailed (mispelling my name) the magazine’s publisher and editor saying I was biased because I had blogged on the Wise County plant. Richmond magazine balked.
When I went to Style Weekly, where I am now a contributing editor, they had no qualms. And when I learned that ODEC had sent similar warnings to Style, I called ODEC and threatened legal action. They shut up. Funny that I never get that rude treatment from Dominion. But it says more about weak-kneed Richmond magazine, which is better off sticking with light-weight stories about kitchen remodeling.
Besides their odd PR, ODEC does have some other issues. One is economic. One wonders why a collection of coops needs such a big plant. In late 2008, their biggest customer, the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative, cut their ties with ODEC over a contract dispute. More likely is that ODEC plans to market the electricity to other utilities if it gets the plant. It also stands to reason that ODEC needs some partners, but who they might be, ODEC hasn’t said.
The class and caste issue in Surry County is an interesting development. But it, too, has its oddities. Unemployment there is about 7 percent or about the state average. It isn’t in the double digits as it is in Southside areas like Martinsville and Henry County.
Is the have and have not issue real? Or is it something ODEC has created and exploited?
Peter Galuszka

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9 responses to “A Coal Plant Proposal Gets Even Dirtier”

  1. rangergirl Avatar

    Oh Peter, I could tell you some stories about what ODEC has exploited and how they work the system here. As the person who isn't "going to let [her kids] grow up across the street from a coal plant." I have some great ODEC stories….

  2. Groveton Avatar

    So, rangergirl – is the pitting of black against white and "haves" against "havenots" a manipulation by ODEC. Or, are the citizens legitimately at odds over the benefits of the project?

  3. Groveton Avatar

    Side note to EMR … I had a chance to talk with the head of engineering at a mid-western electricity company today. I asked him about line loss. He says a good rule of thumb is 7% of electricity is lost in transport – 3% in the transmission facilities and 4% in the distribution network.

    I am not sure how you arrive at the estimate of 30% line loss in calculating location variable costs. It sounds like the number should be 3% not 30%.

  4. surrylocal Avatar

    In what reality does changing bed linens prepare one for a well-paying job at a coal-fired power plant?

    The big joke in Surry Co. is not that there are no jobs, it's that you can't get people to work full-time because they don't want to lose their unemployment/welfare check. Local businesses are always hiring. Some use prisoners just because they always show up and will work 40 hours.

    If these people are for this proposal because they truly want local jobs (and are not just being manipulated by ODEC) why on earth will they not even speak to the union pipefitters, etc. who are trying to help Dendron/Surry require local jobs and training programs? The union people are at every Dendron meeting begging for them to consider adopting written conditions for these things. I'm sure they'll be there at the next one, and their words will fall on deaf ears. Again. And ODEC will sit there smugly, knowing that the majority of the counsel does whatever ODEC says.

  5. rangergirl Avatar

    Groveton, I would say that yes, the citizens are legitimately at odds over the benefits of the project. However, ODEC manipulates the process in any way they can. The finest example of this is when (last May) Ken Alexander was quoted by the Smithfield Times as saying that the only thing coming out of the stacks was "water vapor". The immediate spin, both by ODEC and their attorneys, was that it was a misquote, then they said it was a misspoken statement, then they said it was taken out of context. I'm not sure which one they wanted us to believe. A few days later, as a council member, I was given a packet of information by an ODEC attorney. This packet included a photocopy of the same article (the reporter followed up on the story with a slightly more accurate accounting of what comes out of the stacks–all of which can be found on ODEC's DEQ application). But once said, a statement like this is insidious. I've heard less informed individuals make this statement more than a year later. ODEC could insist that they didn't mean what they said, but I think that the fact that the photocopy was included in information packets for governing bodies is gross negligence, at best; misconduct, at worst. Add to this their insistence that they aren't pitting the Surry governing bodies against Sussex's bodies–all while holding public hearings for both applications on both nights? And insisting that ACoE requires them to present two sites at one time? There is no such requirement–they are supposed to provide alternatives to design, and picking an alternative site it simply a way of both hedging their bets AND gaining the benefit of causing the two counties to jump at the applications without so much as a nod at true review.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    "I am not sure how you arrive at the estimate of 30% line loss in calculating location variable costs. It sounds like the number should be 3% not 30%."

    It is worse than that, Groveton. youwould have to compare that 3% loss against the cost of the alternative(s). You can reduce line loss by having distributed power, but that has costs of its own, so you don't get the 3% savings.

    Then, if you propose highly dense development areas, theyare going to need a lot of power, which means that your "distributed" source [of whatever type] has to be a lot bigger. If your source burns anything, you put more pollution closer to a bigger population. If it doesn'r burn anything then it needs a lot of space, which pushes it away form the densely populated areas, and back into line loss territoriy.

    In my opinion EMR is and has been an abject failure when it comes to cost estimating, not to say deliberately misleading.


  7. Anonymous Avatar

    To EMR's credit, I'm not sure how your engineer came up with a fixed estimate. It would have to be so much line loss per mile, unless his estimate was an average over the whole system.

    If that is the case then EMR is wildly wrong, but he will still claim to be correct, because within that average, some people must be living efficiently with little line loss, and others in less electrically efficient locations are getting [there's that awful word] subsidised.

    Now all we have to do is figur out ow to reconcile the guy that is located electrically effficiently and make sure that happy spot is also water, sewer, jobs, shopping rcreation and transportation efficient.


  8. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    Lets not get the line loss (and location-variable costs) mixed up with coal plants — although they are related.

    EMR will try to find time to respond to your side note ASAP.


  9. Susan Winiecki Avatar
    Susan Winiecki


    When ODEC contacted us, I was on deadline for our next issue, and I wasn't aware that you were blogging on this topic. As I told you on the phone, though you probably didn't hear it through your ranting, I just wanted until the next day to read your blog posts. I needed to see if your blog was news-based or opinion-based. I didn't pull the story. You chose to.

    We have never hesitated to cover news. I just wanted to be sure I wasn't assigning a columnist to a news story.

    Susan Winiecki
    Editor in Chief
    Richmond Magazine

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