About 300 people attended a public hearing on revisions to the air-quality permit for Duke's Cliffside plant in Rutherford County. State air-quality officials say the addition of an 800-megawatt boiler won't worsen the region's air pollution, the key consideration in awarding the permit changes.
But Cliffside is also part of a growing national debate over the nation's energy future.
Coal-fired power plants are major sources of the pollutants that create irritating ozone, visibility-robbing haze and toxic mercury. Chiefly because of its concentration of coal plants, the South also accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, which most scientists say is warming the planet.
A minority of speakers in the hearing's first hour hammered those points, arguing that Duke should make better use of energy efficiency, conservation and renewable sources such as the sun and wind. Because the plant expansion will substantially increase Cliffside's output, its emissions of carbon dioxide will also grow.
"We can start thinking about renaming Great Smoky Mountains National Park, because the Smoky mountains will have the climate of Jacksonville, Fla." if global warming intensifies, said Dr. Richard Fireman, a physician from Mars Hill.
Granting the plant expansion, he added, would be "a death sentence for our state."
Local officials from Cleveland and Rutherford counties had no ambivalence.
Mayors, legislators, county commissioners and public officials from as far as Gaston and Caldwell counties said the $1.8 billion project could only help economic growth in a region that bled textile jobs. Duke already pays Cleveland and Rutherford $900,000 a year in property taxes. The plant expansion would create more than 1,600 construction jobs and 20 to 30 full-time employees.
"This is really a win-win," said state Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, downwind from the plant. "Duke's going to take four old units offline and build a new one that pollutes less. I just don't see the opposition."
Most supporters acknowledged the need to develop cleaner energy sources, but called the new Cliffside a step in that direction. Duke says it will install state-of-the-art pollution controls at the plant, lowering pollution despite increasing power output by 80 percent.
Duke president and chief operating officer Jim Turner said it will be one of the cleanest coal-burning plants in the nation. Besides, added Rutherford County commissioners' Chairman Chivous Bradley, referring to renewable sources, "the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow."
Plant emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide are expected to drop because the four 1940s-era units will be taken offline and new pollution controls installed on a fifth unit.
But the Southern Environmental Law Center, which opposes the permit, says the state allowed Duke to play a "shell game" by claiming credit for pollution reductions legislators required five years ago. Duke says its pollution controls for nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide will be as stringent as those at a brand-new plant.