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Coal plant suit goes to judge

By Dave Williams

dave.williams@graypub.com

ATLANTA - Environmental activists challenging a planned coal-burning power plant failed to poke sufficient holes in the permitting process, given the "deference" owed the government in such decisions, a state lawyer said Thursday.

But a lawyer for two environmental groups seeking to block Georgia's first coal-fired plant in 25 years said the state doesn't deserve such deference.

George Hays, representing the Sierra Club and Friends of the Chattahoochee, said the Environmental Protection Division didn't follow, either the law or its own guidelines, in issuing a permit last May for the 1,200-megawatt Longleaf Energy Station in Southwest Georgia's Early County.

"We need to have a government that is predictable and acts logically," Hays said during closing arguments capping a 22-day hearing before an administrative law judge. "Otherwise, that is the definition of arbitrary and capricious."

The $2 billion project's critics say adding an 11th coal-burning power plant to the mix in Georgia would only add to an already high level of pollutants being spewed into the air.

They say coal-fired plants are major contributors to smog, acid rain and global warming.

But the plant enjoys strong support from many local residents because of the jobs it would bring to one of the most economically depressed regions of Georgia.

The suit charges the EPD with failing to place any limit in the permit on the plant's emissions of carbon dioxide and insufficient limits on sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.

But during the state's closing arguments on Thursday, Senior Assistant Attorney General Diane DeShazo said the EPD selected reasonable emissions limits for the Longleaf plant that are in line with limits other states have placed on coal-burning plants within their borders.

DeShazo said the agency set those limits after a thorough review process that included independent research, extensive contacts with representatives of Longleaf and environmental regulators in other states, and public input.

"EPD took great care to comply with the law," she said.

But Hays said the agency failed to follow a legal requirement to ensure that Longleaf uses the best available technology for controlling pollution - regardless of the cost - and failed to follow its own guidelines, which are based on federal standards.

He also accused the EPD of leaning too much on Longleaf and not enough on its own independent research, an allegation based on witness testimony during the hearing.

"They need to research and reach their own conclusions," he said. "The record will show (the state) was overly reliant on the applicant's research."

Hays asked Judge Stephanie Howells to order the EPD to go back and do a better job reviewing Longleaf's application.

She is expected to issue a ruling by the end of the year.