Dominion pulls back on plan for scrubbers
By SCOTT HARPER, The Virginian-Pilot© December 8, 2006 Last updated: 7:58 PM
At a news conference last year, Dominion Virginia Power announced that it would spend millions to install anti-pollution scrubbers at its coal-fired power plant in Chesapeake.
With less aplomb, the state's largest electric utility has quietly changed plans.
A company spokesman confirmed this week that Dominion will not install the scrubbers any time soon. Instead, it will import and burn low-sulfur and low-mercury coal, principally from Indonesia and Colombia, to create electricity at the Chesapeake plant.
The Dominion spokesman, Dan Genest, said the move is intended to save money and still reap environmental benefits without having to invest in expensive technology.
By burning the foreign coal naturally low in pollutants, beginning next year, Dominion anticipates "the same, significant reductions" of mercury and sulfur emissions - except sooner, Genest said.
The scrubbers - essentially, giant industrial filters - were supposed to be built in 2010 and 2011 onto all four units at the Chesapeake plant, a towering landmark off Military Highway near the Gilmerton Bridge.
"By going this way, we'll see cleaner air faster" - in 2007 instead of 2010, Genest said.
Environmental groups are questioning the shift, however, saying that scrubbers are the surest way to keep toxic mercury from polluting air and water and causing contaminated fish and fish-consumption warnings.
In addition, they question the wisdom of relying on coal from countries such as Indonesia, where Islamic radicalism is fermenting and where one anti-Western terrorist attack already has occurred - in Bali, in 2005.
"I wouldn't want to trust my mercury levels in Virginia to the political winds in Indonesia," said Cale Jaffe, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville.
The Virginia coal industry is concerned, too.
Dink Shackleford, executive director of the Virginia Mining Association, said Dominion's pursuit of foreign coal signals an ominous future for domestic production in southwest Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia.
Shackleford does not blame Dominion for seeking a cheaper resource. Instead, he blames environmentalists and increasing government regulation for forcing utilities to look overseas. "We're financing our own demise," he said, "when we have plenty of coal right here."
He said more than 100 agencies regulate coal mining today in Virginia, which drives up costs dramatically.
Shackleford also questioned why U.S. environmentalists decry his industry when the alternative is coal mining in developing countries such as Indonesia, where scant environmental and worker-safety regulations exist.
"I just think the environmental movement in this country has gone berserk," he said.
It will be cheaper for Dominion to bring Indonesian coal by barge to coastal Virginia than to carry it by rail from the other corner of the state, said Genest, the utility's spokesman.
Dominion is constructing its own pier on the Elizabeth River, where the foreign coal will be unloaded at the foot of the Chesapeake power plant. The pier is expected to be completed in June, Genest said.
But Dominion intends to start burning imported coal by March, he said, temporarily offloading the low-pollution resources at a commercial pier in Portsmouth owned by Giant Cement Co.
Dominion remains committed to installing scrubbers at its huge coal-fired plant in Chester, outside of Richmond, and at another plant in Yorktown. Plans for Yorktown could change, though, Genest said, depending on the emission-reductions seen with foreign coal at Chesapeake.
Genest acknowledged that Dominion is not sure of the precise mercury benefits from burning Indonesian coal. But he said that if levels are not as low as anticipated, Dominion may install a separate technology to cut mercury emissions and comply with state and federal air-quality rules.
Reach Scott Harper at (757) 446-2340 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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