The coalition chose a conspicuous setting for its announcement, holding a news conference at Richmond's ornate Jefferson Hotel to kick off the Wise Energy for Virginia Campaign. The group announced a petition drive aimed at halting a $1.6 billion plant proposed by Dominion Virginia Power, the state's largest utility.
"We're going to the grass roots, we're going to the corporate suites," said Glen Besa, the Appalachian regional director for the Sierra Club. "We're going to fight this power plant wherever we can." Dominion is seeking approval for a 585-megawatt power station on a 1,700-acre site near St. Paul.
The plant, which would have about the same generating capacity as Appalachian Power Co.'s Smith Mountain Lake hydroelectric project, could provide enough power to serve 146,000 residential customers, according to the company. Dominion hopes to get approval from the State Corporation Commission next spring and begin operating the plant in 2012.
Dominion officials said the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center would have 75 full-time workers and create 350 new mining jobs in far southwest Virginia. And it will help meet a growing long-term demand for electricity, officials said. Some opponents of the Dominion proposal fear the plant will accelerate a form of surface mining known as mountaintop removal, in which miners clear-cut mountains and use explosives to get at the coal.
Environmentalists argue that the practice contribute to flooding and water pollution, among other things.
"If the new proposed power plant is built in Wise County, I know that many more of the beautiful, lush mountains will give way to heaps of rubble in order to supply fuel for the plant," said Kathy Selvage, a Wise resident and vice president of a group called Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.
Dominion spokesman Dan Genest said it's too soon to determine how coal will be generated for the proposed plant. Dominion has not begun discussions with mining companies because the plant has not been approved by regulators, Genest said.
Under state law designed to spark the creation of the plant, only coal mined in Southwest Virginia can be burned in it. Genest said the coalition opposing the plant used "gross exaggerations and scare tactics" in kicking off its campaign. He disputed assertions that Dominion's plant lacks pollution controls, saying it will have features designed to minimize emissions and protect the environment.
In testimony filed with the SCC, Dominion notes that the plant will be "carbon-capture compatible," allowing the company to add equipment to capture carbon dioxide when the technology becomes available.
An energy bill passed this year by the General Assembly creates incentives for companies that use carbon-capture technology. Dominion is sponsoring related research at Virginia Tech. The plant also will use different qualities of coal, including waste coal, and biomass such as wood waste, according to Dominion.
Opponents said that Dominion's new plant likely would have insufficient emissions controls because carbon-capture technology remains unavailable. Besa noted that New York's attorney general sent subpoenas earlier this month to Dominion's chief executive and the heads of four other utility companies to determine whether they informed shareholders of financial and legal risks associated with coal-fired power plants.
Genest declined to comment on the subpoenas. Selvage, who was the first person to sign the coalition's petition, said taking on Dominion is a daunting task. "This is almost like a David-and-Goliath fight," she said. "But I believe we have the right argument."