The state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission decision allows Southwestern Electric Power Co. to resume work on the 600-megawatt plant near Fulton, which the company hopes to complete in four years.
SWEPCO lawyer Stephen Cuffman told the commission he expects all 427 workers to be back on the job December 8. The company has said up to 1,400 workers will be needed for the project, which many area residents, business people, and state and local officials say is critical to economic growth in the region.
The appeal, filed by the Sierra Club and Audubon Arkansas, set in motion an immediate shutdown of the project as required by the state's permit process.
The environmental groups argue that the November 5 air permit was granted by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality without adequate analysis of the available technology, various blends of fuel, and consequences to public health from greenhouse gas emissions and mercury pollution.
By law, the commission must decide the appeal within 120 days, and an administrative law judge for the DEQ has set a December 15 hearing date on the appeal.
Commissioner John Simpson was the only panel member to vote against lifting the stay. Before the 7-1 vote, Simpson expressed concern that lifting the stay would signal to the public that regulators were basing decisions on economic considerations rather than environmental concerns.
Opponents and supporters of the stay, as well as lawyers on both sides of the issue, were given time to express their concerns. Among them, several construction workers turned out to urge the panel to allow them to go back to work.
"I need this job. They need this job," said Nathaniel Burk of Dierks, pointing to workers standing in the back of the crowded meeting room. "South Arkansas is starving for jobs."
Burk, who said he does not live beyond his means, said he lost three jobs before getting work at the plant site.
"Without this job, the holiday season and my bills I'm not going to be able to continue to live the way I live," Burk said. "And I don't know what I'll do if I lose this job."
State Sen. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette; Rep. Allen Maxwell, D-Monticello; Rep. Bubba Powers, D-Hope; Fulton Mayor Henry Hale; Fulton business owners Mike and Daphney Cox; Jerry Sparks of the Texarkana Chamber of Commerce and others also pleaded with commissioners to lift the stay. They noted the particularly tough economic times nationwide and the timing of the shutdown so near the Christmas season.
Lawyers for the Sierra Club and Audubon Arkansas and for hunting club and property owners who also oppose the project told commissioners they should keep the stay in effect to preserve the integrity of the appeal process as intended by their own regulations and state law. They argued that lifting the stay would be unfair to opponents bringing legitimate concerns to the panel over a permit that the commission could end up revoking.
Also, they argued, the only factor for the panel to consider was whether the stay causes SWEPCO any substantive harm to its legal rights not whether the company was losing money as it would with any project interruption.
"SWEPCO wants special treatment and granting it would set a bad precedent," said Ilan Levin, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project in Austin, Texas, which is representing the environmental groups.
SWEPCO, based in Shreveport, La., is a subsidiary of Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power, among the largest electric utilities in the country.