Judge halts Sandersville coal plant

A Georgia judge gave an early Christmas present to Ogeechee Riverkeeper Chandra Brown.

Judge Ronit Walker rejected Georgia's air quality permit for Plant Washington, a proposed 850-mega-watt coal-fired power plant in Sandersville. The state permit for the Plant Washington violated federal Clean Air Act safeguards to limit harmful air pollution, she ruled in a decision released Thursday.

The Riverkeeper, one of four petitioners in the case, sees the ruling as a gift to the public.

"We are thrilled that the judge ruled in favor of protecting the people who would be forced to breathe the hazardous air pollution from this proposed dirty coal plant," Brown said. A consortium of six electric membership cooperatives based mainly in Atlanta and called Power4Georgians, is backing the plant. Not surprisingly, it viewed the ruling more as, well, a lump of coal.

Power4Georgians issued a statement that read in part: "These limits were the product of rigorous analyses by EPD. In the end, the Administrative Law Judge elected to elevate form over substance, in that she focused on the words that the EPD witnesses used to explain their analyses, rather than the low emission limits that their analyses produced."

John Suttles, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which litigated the case on behalf of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper and three other environmental groups, said the judge's ruling made clear that Georgia has been applying the wrong standards in setting limits on the emissions of hazardous air pollutants. The plant has the potential to produce enough pollutants in this category per year to be categorized as a "major source." But instead of looking at what similar plants had actually achieved in reducing pollutants, the permit looked at what the other plants' permits allowed them to emit.

In some cases, Suttles, said, they perform much better than required. And once they do, the law requires others to achieve that level, too.

"The legal standard is based on the level of emission control achieved in practice by a similar source," Suttles said. "It's irrespective of cost."

Power4Georgians spokesman Dean Alford said Friday a decision had not been made on whether to appeal the ruling.

Brown has long argued that Plant Washington's air pollution will rain mercury into the already mercury-stressed Ogeechee River, on whose banks it will be located. Mercury wasn't one of the pollutants affected by the judge's ruling, at least not directly.

"They all interrelate," she said. "Some of the other metals allow for more mercury absorption in the body."

And the ruling means at least a delay for Power4Georgians, which Brown sees as a reprieve.

"People in the Ogeechee and Canoochee (basins) won't have to worry about breathing in more hazard air pollution," she said.

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