Stop the Surry Coal Plant – An Article by Sharon Hartzell

If I had heard or read about the Cypress Creek Power Station before the first Student Environmental Action Coalition meeting of the year, I must have dismissed it. That night in September, I learned for the first time of Old Dominion Electric Cooperative’s plans to construct a coal-fired power plant twenty miles from William & Mary that would spew tons of toxic compounds into the winds blowing towards my new home. Then, I started paying attention.

Across the James River in Surry County, VA, a battle is being waged. Since December, 2008, ODEC has been planning the construction of Virginia’s largest coal-fired power plant in the 300-person town of Dendron. The prevailing wind patterns place Williamsburg and the College of William & Mary, as well as much of Hampton Roads, in direct receipt of the plant’s potential emissions.

The $6 billion plant is an environmental and health disaster. If built, it will release over 3000 tons of sulfur dioxide, over 3000 tons of nitrogen oxides, 10,446 tons of carbon monoxide, nearly 250 tons of volatile organic compounds, 44 pounds of mercury, and 11.74 million metric tons of CO2 every year. Downwind areas face threats of lung cancer, asthma, and neurological damage. Air quality is at an obvious risk, as is the already-sensitive Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Economically, the situation is just as grim. The government strictly regulates atmospheric levels of ozone, formed from nitrogen oxides in the lower atmosphere, and tags areas that cannot meet ozone standards with a status of “nonattainment.” Many downwind areas already hover dangerously close to nonattainment, and risk losing funding for highways and opportunities for economic development. The plant also makes an investment in technology that we, as a country, should be – and are – trying to phase out of our energy profile.

The losses our area will incur are clear, and, evidently, ODEC has decided that any power gains the plant would provide are not worth their immediate action. On September 8th, 2010, ODEC announced plans to delay the DEQ air permit filing process for 18-24 months, citing “slower than expected” growth in energy demand due to a lagging economy as the main reason for the pause. This sends a very clear message: present energy needs do very little to justify the plant. ODEC, however, claims their ultimate plans are unchanged

ODEC stands at the precipice of an important decision-making period. According to ODEC’s website, the cooperative “generates or purchases energy from a diverse portfolio of resources” and list hydropower and wind among these resources. A truly “diverse” energy portfolio, combined with improvements in efficiency, could help take Virginia beyond a filthy and outdated energy source. With the proposed plant ODEC seems to have settled for the easy route at a time when they have the freedom to transcend it.

At the moment, plans for the coal plant are highly vulnerable to public opinion. And, the public is trying to keep its voice as audible as possible. Residents of Surry County have mobilized against the plant by forming the Coalition to Keep Surry Clean. Wise Energy for Virginia, a coalition of environmental organizations including the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and the Sierra Club, is calling for ODEC to withdraw all plans for the plant. At the most recent Williamsburg City Council meeting, a representative from the American Lung Association gave a statement in opposition of the plant, citing risks to the respiratory health of Williamsburg residents. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the National Parks Conservation Association have also come out strongly against ODEC’s plans. William & Mary’s Student Environmental Action Coalition has been working to oppose the plant since it was announced in 2008.

The Williamsburg community has a lot to lose; the quality of our natural environment, our respiratory and neurological health, and our economy are all at stake. We also have a voice in the discussion of where ODEC, Surry County, and the surrounding areas should be in ten years.

Right now, the Army Corps of Engineers is drafting an Environmental Impact Statement that may decide the fate of the Cypress Creek Power Station. While they are gathering information, they are obligated to consider any concerns voiced to them by the public, and address them in the Statement. As downwind students, we have the power to voice our concerns to the Army Corps of Engineers, and to write or email the members of our City Council, requesting a resolution against the plant. We have an integral part to play in this fight, and now is the time to take up that role.

Whether you are outraged or impartial, I urge you to do one thing: find out more. Each Monday at 7 p.m., SEAC’s Stop the Surry Coal Plant campaign meets in the SEAC office in the Campus Center. At each meeting I attend, I grow more astounded by the depth of knowledge of students who have been working for years to oppose the plant, and more convinced that the Cypress Creek Power Station presents dangers to our area which cannot be dismissed by our student body. If you are interested moving our area past coal and into a future powered by cleaner alternatives, or if you simply want to find out more about the plant and its opposition, attend a meeting. Your lungs will thank you later.

-Sharon Hartzell

Originally published in the December, 2010 issue of the Dog Street Journal, William & Mary Campus Publication