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Monday, June 30, 2008

Coal plant case could have nationwide impact

A little more than one year after filing suit against a coal plant proposed for an impoverished pocket of southwest Georgia, opponents emerged victorious in the case and say the decision alters the legal landscape for one of the chief causes of global warming.

Justine Thompson of GreenLaw, the environmental law firm that fought the power plant, says Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore established a precedent this morning when she reversed a ruling by a lower court regarding a permit issued by the state Environmental Protection Division to Dynegy Co., the Houston-based company that planned to build the plant in Early County. Moore's ruling — the first in the nation — states that the state agency must consider carbon dioxide emissions when it issues air-quality permits.

"A bombshell court ruling today," Frank O'Donnell of the Clean Air Watch, a Washington D.C.-based environmental group, wrote in an e-mail about Moore's decision. "This ruling could have far-reaching implications. Those proposing coal plants elsewhere are going to be running for the Excedrin."

Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club says the ruling is nonbinding for other states but would most likely be considered when cases involving new or modified coal power plants come before a court. Nationwide, he said, 130 new coal plants are proposed. Of those, nearly 80 are in the permitting process and more than half are being battled in court by the Sierra Club.

“In a case that is being watched across the country, Judge Moore has sent a message that it is not acceptable for the state to put profits over public health,” Thompson said in a statement. “This ruling goes a long way toward protecting the right of Georgians to breathe clean air and sends a message to EPD that it must tighten the standards it uses to approve air pollution permits for companies seeking to build any more coal-fired power plants in this state.”

Moore's ruling invalidates Dynegy's permit and halts construction of the plant. Thompson says the company can file with the Georgia Court of Appeals or reapply for a permit that would meet the standards established by Moore's ruling. The appeals court is not required to consider the case.

A Dynegy spokesperson said the company is in the process of reviewing the ruling and will comment later in the afternoon.

Thompson says the ruling will also impact a controversial proposed coal plant in Washington County by 10 electric co-ops in Georgia. That facility will have to be redesigned or face a similar fate, she says.

Here are GreenLaw's stats about the proposed Dynegy plant:

  • This plant would produce 9 million tons of global warming carbon dioxide pollution annually—equal to adding 1.3 million cars on Georgia’s roads every year. A typical plant produces 3.7 million tons annually according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

  • This plant would unnecessarily emit 4,700 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) every year.

  • This plant would violate EPA’s standards for safe air by exceeding ambient air quality standards for fine particulate matter where the plant is located.

  • This plant would emit nitrogen oxide (NOx), causing smog, acid rain, and health problems (EPD is allowing Dynegy to save money by capturing only 67% of these emissions).

  • This plant would be allowed to take more than 20 million gallons (net) per day from the Chattahoochee River —the permit allows intake of 27 million gallons, of which roughly 5 million are supposed to be returned.

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