A map that accompanied an article Tuesday about power plants in Virginia showed Culpeper as a site for a planned gas-fired power plant. Culpeper officials rejected the plant, and its developers plan to build it elsewhere. Also, a power plant planned for Halifax would generate 786 megawatts of electricity, a higher figure than the article stated. (Published 6/21/90)
Virginia Power's efforts to meet the rising demand for electricity in the state have run up against the U.S. Department of the Interior, in the person of J.W. Wade, superintendent of the Shenandoah National Park.
From his perch on the crest of the Blue Ridge, Wade has called on the state to stop issuing permits for a series of independently run power plants, saying they would add significantly to air pollution, which in turn would damage natural resources in the 195,000-acre national park and elsewhere in Virginia.
In a recent letter to Elizabeth Haskell, Virginia's secretary of natural resources, Wade asked for a moratorium on permits for large generating plants.
The sheer number of power facilities planned -- at last count about 40 -- is likely to damage the environment, according to Wade. "It's not the individual impact of each of these plants, but the cumulative effect we're concerned about."
Haskell, in a reply to Wade yesterday that stressed the need to balance "economic development and conservation of natural resources," proposed a meeting on the issue but did not address a moratorium.
Wade's objections come amid growing concern that air pollution is choking the country's national parks, including the Grand Canyon, where smoke from a nearby power plant obscures the canyon bottom on some days, and remote Acadia National Park in Maine, where smog readings sometimes exceed federal health standards.
The General Accounting Office reported this year that 1 percent of the pollution sources near national parks and wilderness areas, accounting for 10 percent of the pollution, are regulated under the Clean Air Act.
Buying power from independent producers -- authorized by the federal government in the mid-1970s and approved in Virginia two years ago -- is often the cheapest way for a utility to meet escalating needs for electricity, according to Virginia Power spokesman Jim Norvelle. He estimated that the approach, which is expected to help raise Virginia Power's output 50 percent by the year 2000, will save customers $500 million in the next 25 years.
Virginia Power gets 3.2 percent of its power from independents, up from 1 percent two years ago. By 1997, the utility projects it will receive 21 percent of its power from other producers.
Much of this private supply comes from independent companies that specialize in "cogeneration" -- that is, they not only produce steam to drive turbines but also sell a part of it to nearby businesses.
Since Virginia began allowing utilities to buy power from independents, there has been a sharp increase in the number of generating plants approved by the state. From 1986 to 1988, four plants were approved. Since then, 11 have been, and about 15 are awaiting approval.
In his letter to Haskell, Wade asked for a moratorium on permits for generating facilities that would emit more than 500 tons annually of sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides -- two principal ingredients in air pollution and acid rain -- until a study of the cumulative effect of the power plants is complete.
According to Virginia Power engineers, a coal-burning plant producing 60 megawatts of electricity, with pollution-control devices operating at 92 percent efficiency as required by state air pollution laws, puts out 500 tons of sulfur dioxide a year, and can supply power for about 14,000 households.
Of the 40 new power plants planned for operation within the next seven years, 14 would produce 60 or more megawatts, and 10 of those 14 would be coal-fired, including a 486-megawatt plant in Halifax planned by Virginia Power and the Old Dominion Electric Co-op. Five plants would be operated with gas and oil, including one in Doswell that would produce 600 megawatts.
In the Shenandoah National Park, which stretches along the Blue Ridge from Front Royal to Waynesboro, steadily acidifying trout streams and pea-soup views from overlooks along the 101-mile Skyline Drive are already a concern to park officials as rapid growth threatens to hem in the 50-year-old network of forests, waterfalls, scenic drives and hiking trails. Two years ago air quality in the park, which draws nearly 2 million visitors annually, registered in the unhealthy range for two days running, and Wade has said he would consider posting health warnings for hikers should air pollution soar again.
Wade said he wrote Haskell because, under the 1977 Clean Air Act, he has the responsibility to make sure that air quality in the park does not go below standards set forth in the legislation.
Wade has the backing of his bosses in Washington, including National Park Service Director James Ridenour, whom a spokesman described as "very supportive" of Wade's efforts.
Should Wade officially object to a specific power-producing facility on the grounds that it would damage the park's air quaility, the Interior Department could lodge a formal complaint with Virginia officials. However, the state is under no legal obligation to refuse a permit.
"We're like shooting BBs at a cannon," said one park official.
The prospect of generating and selling power to Virginia utilities has attracted millions of dollars in investment to the state, but in many communities the proposed plants have spawned controversy.
In Buena Vista, a dispute has been brewing for two years over plans by the Hadson Development Corp., an Oklahoma City oil and gas company, to cogenerate power for a shoe sole factory. City officials want the jobs and tax revenue the plant would bring, but their neighbors in adjacent Rockbridge County claim that pollutants from the coal-fired plant would further limit visibility in the Shenandoah Valley and threaten the area's tourism. Staff writer D'Vera Cohn contributed to this report.