Judge OKs new coal-burning power plant

ATLANTA - An administrative law judge Friday rejected a bid to block construction of Georgia's first coal-fired power plant in a quarter century.

Environmental activists had challenged a state permit issued last spring for the 1,200-megawatt Longleaf Energy Station in rural Early County, charging that the plant would spew a toxic mixture of pollutants into the air.

But Judge Stephanie Howells sided with lawyers representing the state Environmental Protection Division, who argued that the agency had the authority and expertise to set appropriate emissions limits for the project.

"The limits imposed by EPD are reasonable and supported by law," Howells wrote on the last page of the 107-page decision. "EPD's reasonable decisions should be afforded a measure of deference."

The $2 billion project, subject to the outcome of an appeal of Friday's ruling, would become the 11th coal-burning power plant in Georgia.

Utilities had switched over to natural gas-fired plants in the last 20 years, but coal has become desirable again from a financial standpoint because of rising gas prices.

The project has drawn strong support from many residents in that part of Southwest Georgia because of the job-creating promise it holds for a region chronically beset with high poverty and unemployment.

But state and local environmental groups have argued that the economic boost isn't worth the health costs that would come with a large coal plant.

They say coal-fired power plants are major contributors to smog, which aggravates illnesses such as asthma, and particulate matter, which has been linked to heart disease.

"This is a fight for the heart and lungs of Georgia," said Patty Durand, director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, which filed the lawsuit along with Early County-based Friends of the Chattahoochee.

The lawsuit accused the EPD of failing to place any limit in the plant's permit on emissions of carbon dioxide, which has been linked to global warming, and insufficient limits on sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.

George Hays, a lawyer for GreenLaw, which represented the plaintiffs in the case, said the decision appears to concede that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in a case involving Massachusetts.

But Hays said the Georgia ruling maintains that carbon dioxide is not to be considered a regulated pollutant, which he said contradicts state law.

The plaintiffs also accused the EPD of depending too much on the applicant in reviewing the permit request.

"This is the first coal-fired plant that's been permitted in Georgia in 20 years," GreenLaw Executive Director Justine Thompson said. "We would hope the state would do its own thorough independent study. They didn't do that."

EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said the agency had no comment on Friday's ruling.

Michael Vogt, director of project development for LS Power, said the company was pleased with the ruling. LS Power is planning the Longleaf station in a joint venture with Houston-based Dynegy.

"It validates what we said all along," Vogt said. "We went through a thorough process and felt that we'd done it properly."

The plant won't be built anytime soon.

For one thing, the environmental groups say they will appeal the decision.

Dynegy spokesman David Byford said there's also the matter of lining up electric utilities to buy the power the plant will produce.

"Before breaking ground, you have to line up commercial arrangements and that kind of thing," he said.