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Debating Coal's Cost in Rural Va.
"You just wouldn't be able to do enough wind to meet our energy supply" needs, said Pamela Faggert, Dominion's chief environmental officer. Dominion plans to lessen the environmental impact by someday adding technology that captures greenhouse gases before they escape, Faggert said, adding that those technologies do not yet exist on a commercial scale.
Dominion's choice has put it in the middle of a national debate. On one side, power companies say that coal, which provides about half the power in the United States, is a plentiful and logical fuel source.
Some environmental groups have vowed to fight proposed coal plants.
"These things are very, very large contributors to exactly the problem that everybody says they want to fix," said Bruce Nilles, who leads the Sierra Club's national campaign against coal. The problem is climate change, he said, and coal plants are major sources of heat-trapping gases.
There are at least 41 coal-fired projects in development nationwide, but experts said that the pace of new proposals has slowed because of growing opposition.
"It's basically, if not stopped dead in its tracks, pretty much close to it," said Richard Cortright, a managing director in the utility-analysis group at Standard and Poor's. "Do you want to start a plant in that atmosphere, not knowing what might come down the pike?"
The Wise County debate is among a number of fights over energy in the mid-Atlantic region, including disputes over power-transmission lines planned in parts of Maryland and Virginia. In all the battles, power companies say the electricity is needed; opponents say the environmental costs are too high.
"Natural visibility is 100 miles. We're probably seeing 10 miles," said Catharine Gilliam, of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. She was gazing at the Swift Run overlook in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park and seeing only two mountain ridges instead of the many that are there. She said the haze was caused, in part, by power plants, something a new Dominion plant would only exacerbate.
"Any amount [of pollution] is going to add and make this worse," she said. Her group wants Dominion to change the plant's design.
Activists also say the Dominion plant would spew toxic mercury that could end up in streams and the Chesapeake Bay. They also say that it would drive up demand for destructive mountaintop-removal coal mines.
Dominion officials have defended their proposal, saying they will use technologies that keep pollution at a minimum. On the issue of national parks, they say the plant's impacts would fall within federal guidelines.
On Tuesday, Dominion seemed to have significant support in Wise.
"Coal is southwest Virginia. Coal is the Appalachians," said Donnie Rife, chairman of nearby Dickenson County's board of supervisors. Rife, like other local officials, said the plant would provide jobs and tax revenue to a rural area that is short of both. "I don't have any idea in the world why people down in this area would complain about this," he said.
Sara Bailey of Arlington then appeared at the microphone. Bailey, who made the long drive in a fuel-efficient hybrid Toyota Prius, said she was speaking for other Northern Virginia residents in asking the board to reject Dominion's proposed plant.
"I hope that you will think carefully about the future of our state and what we are leaving as our legacy," she said.