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Surry's Regeneration

How the tiny town of Dendron has become ground zero in the nation's energy crisis.



A gigantic 250-year-old oak dominates Bess Richardson's white frame house in the tiny town of Dendron, population 300, in Surry County. Richardson, who's lived in Dendron for 29 years, says she loves the town's quaintness and neighborly appeal. But like a number of houses here, hers has a black sign reading “No Coal Plant” next to her driveway. “I hope it doesn't come here,” she says. “The technology doesn't exist yet to make it clean.”

She's referring to the $6 billion proposal by Henrico County-based Old Dominion Electric Cooperative to build a pair of 750-megawatt coal-fired generating stations that could forever change Dendron, about 45 miles southeast of Richmond. Tall towers hundreds of feet high will belch pollution including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and mercury.

If built, Cypress Creek Power Station would be the second largest of its kind in the state. It would instantly become the state's sixth-biggest air polluter, according to an official with the state Department of Environmental Quality. Coal trains would clatter past along a new rail spur from Norfolk Southern's coal mainline to Norfolk. Water for steam would be pumped 15 miles from the James River and heated water would be pumped back into the river. Fly ash from the coal will be buried on the project's 1,600-acre site, not far from the town's well water supply, says Helen Eggleston, a Dendron resident who is a member of the grass-roots group Coalition for a Cleaner Surry.

The bucolic setting has become the latest battleground in a national struggle between electric utilities attempting to build new coal-fired plants to boost generating capacity and increasingly well-organized environmental groups that oppose them.

The plants are dirty, contribute to global warming and promote the destruction of Central Appalachia through mountaintop-removal coal mining methods, says Glenn Besa of the Richmond chapter of the Sierra Club.

Utilities say coal already provides more than half of the country's generating capacity, and that giant coal-fired plants can generate great amounts of electricity more reliably than greener alternatives such as wind turbines.

Few people question the local economic benefits the plant would provide. If the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative gets the 50 permits it needs and construction begins in 2012, thousands of construction workers would swarm to Dendron. The plant would have a permanent work force of 200. Surry has a per capita income of about $16,000 — about $10,000 less than suburban Henrico — so the “tens of millions of dollars” the plant would provide would be welcome, says Tyrone W. Franklin, Surry County's administrator. Nor is Surry a stranger to huge power stations. Since the early 1970s, Dominion Resources has operated a twin-unit nuclear power plant in Surry, just a few miles away on the James River, not far from Jamestown and Williamsburg.

Officials with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative declined to be interviewed and did not respond to a detailed list of questions. Its literature says the plant is needed to help Virginia's projected gap of 4,000 megawatts of needed electrical generating power by 2016. The cooperative serves 11 nonprofit electrical cooperatives in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, located primarily in rural areas. It would be the cooperative's first solo foray into coal-fired generation. It's also part-owner of a coal-fired plant in Halifax County that Dominion Resources operates.

Yet questions remain about whether the Surry plant is needed and can be cost-effective. Synapse Energy Economics, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting company, lambasted the economics of the plan in an April report bankrolled by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group. The study says that costs could well exceed $6 billion and that financing in the recession is dicey at best. Coal prices can fluctuate dramatically. Synapse also questions whether the extra 1,500 megawatts of capacity are needed.

The cooperative has fewer customers than it used to. Its largest member, Manassas-based Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative, with 142,000 customers, terminated its relationship Dec. 31 over a contract dispute. “We thought we could do better with a different power supplier,” says Virginia Burginger, a spokeswoman for that co-op.

The state will need 4,600 megawatts of additional capacity by the end of the next decade, Dominion Resources spokesman Dan Genest says. Dominion Resources plans to add a third nuclear unit at North Anna, he says; several other units including wind and the Virginia City Hybrid Power Station in Wise County would add about 4,200 megawatts to help meet anticipated demand.

Dominion Resources' Wise County plant has likewise been highly controversial and fought by environmentalists. Barring a court decision, however, it has the permits necessary to proceed. That project would cost $1.6 billion and generate 585 megawatts of electricity.

The cooperative is just starting to go through the same permit review. According to its data, Cypress Creek would emit annually 3,085 tons of nitrogen oxide, 3,685 tons of sulfur dioxide, nearly a half a ton of lead, 283 tons of sulfuric mist and 2,155 tons of soot and other particles. In addition, the project needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because construction will alter wetlands.

Of particular concern to the state Department of Environmental Quality is the cooperative's estimate that the plant will emit 118 pounds per year of highly toxic mercury. By contrast, Dominion Resources' Wise County plant will emit 5.5 pounds of mercury a year. Given prevailing wind patterns in Surry,  the mercury could fall onto the water of the James River and Chesapeake Bay and be dangerous to wildlife. Large amounts of mercury can kill animals, affect fertility and stunt growth, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. “This is something we're absolutely going to be looking at,” says state air-pollution analyst Sparky H.L. Lisle Jr.

Another environmental problem is more difficult to quantify but no less serious. Cypress Creek is projected to emit 14.6 million tons a year of carbon dioxide into the air. By comparison, the Wise County plant will emit 5.3 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

The Obama administration has vowed to push laws to erect what's known as a cap-and-trade system to force companies to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions because they contribute to global warming. Although details are unclear, the cap-and-trade law could, in essence, force polluters to purchase the rights to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The Synapse report estimates that if the cap-and-trade law goes forward the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative's customers and partners would bear an extra cost of anywhere from $223 million to $1.76 billion to handle carbon dioxide. The cooperative has said it has plans to reduce or limit carbon dioxide emissions but has provided few details.

The cooperative fired back when the Synapse report was issued, calling it “speculative and inaccurate.” The utility insists that the plant will save customers $14 billion. “We've asked [the cooperative] for figures to show where they get their $14 billion number but they haven't responded,” says David Schlissel, a Synapse senior analyst and co-author of the report.

The raft of unanswered questions makes Dendron residents uneasy. Some are torn between the promise of economic windfall and the potential environmental impact on their small town. “I've heard many tales about it but I've not heard enough,” one woman says, standing on her back porch on a recent June morning.

The first big decision will likely come next month, when the Dendron Town Council takes up the cooperative's rezoning request to permit the plant to be built on the 1,400-acre site. Regardless of the vote, almost everyone agrees it's only the beginning of a long, hot summer. S

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