Thursday, November 6, 2008

Arkansas panel ignores environmental hazards and issues air permit for coal-fired power plant

Utility gets air permit for plant
Posted on Thursday, November 6, 2008
The final air permit for a $ 1. 6 billion coal-fired power plant to be built in Hempstead County was issued Wednesday by state environmental regulators.

Southwestern Electric Power Co. spokesman Scott McCloud said the company is “extremely pleased” to complete a two-year process that involved two public hearings and hundreds of comments from residents.

Yet any euphoria that plant supporters may experience could be short-lived, as opponents of the project 15 miles northeast of Texarkana plan to appeal the decision.

“I am confident there will be an appeal,” said Chuck Nestrud, a Little Rock attorney who represents private hunting clubs and owners of 18, 000 acres near the site. “But right now we’re not sure which parties would participate.”

McCloud said, “Of course, there is always the possibility of another appeal, and if that occurs, who knows what will happen ? But today is a good day.”

Such a move must be filed with the Arkansas Pollution Control Ecology Commission within 30 days, said Doug Szenher, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.

If so, it would place a stay on the permit, he said. That would block SWEPCO’s plans to immediately start full-scale construction on the John W. Turk Jr. power plant, which is expected to take four years to complete.

It would also join two other appeals filed against the 600-megawatt facility.

One is before the 8 th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. It contests a federal judge’s July ruling that certain types of construction are allowed before obtaining an air permit.

The other is before the Arkansas Court of Appeals. It contends that the Arkansas Public Service Commission’s 2-1 approval of the plant in November 2007 was improper because it ruled on SWEPCO’s need to provide additional power and need for the Turk plant itself in separate hearings.

Once plant construction begins, it would create up to 1, 400 jobs at the height of the project and 110 permanent jobs once the plant is completed, SWEPCO said. The project would generate about $ 38 million in sales and property tax revenue and an annual payroll of $ 9 million to southwest Arkansas.

However, the plant site is near one of Arkansas’ most ecologically sensitive areas. This includes 2, 000-acre Grassy Lake, which is home to alligators, migratory birds and some of Arkansas’ last cypress swamps and stands of virgin timber.

Environmental activists decried Environmental Quality Department’s decision, noting that the Governor’s Commission on Global Warming recently recommended a moratorium on any new coal-fired power plants in Arkansas until 2020.

“This battle is not over,” said Glen Hooks, senior regional representative for the Sierra Club. “Expect that Sierra Club and our allies will use every tool in our arsenal and fight this plant until absolutely all avenues have been exhausted, up to and including legal challenges.”

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