Sustainable WNC

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Archive for November, 2007

The Cliffside Hearings are Over. What Now?

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

The North Carolina Division of Air Quality (DAQ) violated the public trust, again, when it refused to hold more than one public hearing on Duke Energy’s proposed expansion of its coal-burning facility at Cliffside. There is a long history of DAQ disregard for its stated goal of working with the citizens of the state to improve air quality. The DAQ Title V process is the last regulatory hurdle Duke Energy must overcome before beginning construction on the new plant, perhaps as early as January, 2008. The one official hearing held by the state agency was in Forest City, NC, on Tuesday, September 18, starting at six in the evening. Forest City is a tiny rural community in Rutherford County in the southwestern part of the state, far from major population centers that will be affected by the pollution, climate change and water-use issues associated with the operation of the new gargantuan 800 megawatt coal-burning power plant. Holding the hearing in such a remote location ensured that the major news media would not cover the issue in a comprehensive manner. Reporters for the few media outlets that did cover the story, like the Charlotte Observer, stayed only for the beginning and didn’t hear or report on the testimony of environmental spokespeople who made the effort to come the long distance, but were placed at the end of the speaker’s list, as Duke Energy and it’s paid entourage dominated the front end. And so, anyone not aware of the process and its abuse, seeing a news report on the hearing would have been led to believe that the new “clean coal technology” Cliffside Power Plant was welcomed by the local community, with virtually no opposition, case closed.

Fourteen of us caravanned down to Forest City from Asheville after work that night, arriving at about 5:30 pm. A group from Charlotte, about the same size arrived shortly after we did. But, Duke Energy had arranged a picnic for the local people and public officials who came much earlier to sign up to speak. Perhaps a hundred and fifty local people stood near the entrance of the school building wearing large yellow paper badges reading “Cliffside, YES!”

The hearing started with a short statement by Donald van der Vaart the former Progress Energy administrator who now runs the Title V permitting process for DAQ. He welcomed the audience, briefly explained the purpose of the hearing and how important public input was to the process. After speaking he retired to a seat in the front row and was not heard from again. The meeting was facilitated by a lone DAQ woman on stage. There was a time-keeper who notified each speaker when the three-minute limit had been reached. The speaker’s podium faced the stage as each person testifying addressed the lonely facilitator.

The first hour-and-a-half of testimony was dominated by local officials repeating misinformation about how clean the new coal plant would be with its “state of the art” emission control technology. They opined about all the economic benefits the Cliffside Expansion would bring to Rutherford and surrounding counties. Speaker after speaker repeated the same rehearsed message, with overly enthusiastic members of the audience encouraging them, shouting “AMEN!” I am not making this up. They shouted “AMEN!” This was what the press stayed to see and the sentiment that was reported the following day.

During that first block of time only one speaker, Richard Fireman of NC Interfaith Power & Light broke the monotony by defending the environment. Richard had come earlier than the rest of us and signed up early. The position Richard was in at that moment was not enviable. The atmosphere of intimidation was tangible in that auditorium. But, he spoke eloquently and momentarily interrupted the nonsense of the power company’s staged propaganda. The grumbling and rude sniggering was audible.

When the parade of Duke Energy loyalists ended, the auditorium was half empty and spokespeople for the environment finally had a chance to counter. The local crowd treated the first two or three environmental speakers with the same disrespect and intimidation that Richard had experienced, but soon the atmosphere began to change as information began to flow, apparently striking a chord with at least some in the Rutherford County community. They learned that the new plant’s “modern” emission controls were not all they had been led to believe. There would be a substantial increase in mercury emissions from the new unit. CO2 emissions would increase by millions of tons each year. Arsenic, lead and other toxic emissions would increase substantially. They learned that scarce water supplies would be strained further as the plant would evaporate two million gallons of additional water each day. The local citizens learned that only thirty permanent new jobs would result from the operation of Cliffside Unit 6. And they learned that many more jobs would be created if the plant was scrapped and, instead, people were trained in the fields of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, like solar, wind and geothermal. By the time five or six environmental speakers had completed their statements the crowd sat in attentive silence. None of this was reported by the news media.

At nine o’clock the facilitator announced that speakers would now only be allowed two minutes for their statements. As it happened, I was the first one scheduled to speak after she made the announcement. But, I had prepared a three-minute statement, come a long way and waited too long to allow myself to be limited in this way. Ignoring the time-keeper’s signal, my statement was delivered in its entirety. No one attempted to interrupt and the crowd listened intently.

The Forest City hearing on Cliffside was a sham, a mockery of the process that is intended to allow a representative cross-section of the citizenry of our state have influence over the regulatory process in a fair and democratic manner. At least a dozen environmental organizations state-wide made written requests of the DAQ for multiple hearings on Cliffside for the obvious reason that the nitrogen-oxide, sulfur-dioxide, mercury, hydrocarbons, volatile organic compound, heavy metal, arsenic, and other toxic chemical pollution, along with the enormous water-usage and greenhouse-gas CO2 emissions, would affect everyone in the state, not just the citizens who are within a short drive of Forest City. The refusal by the DAQ was a slap in the face to every citizen.

In response, the Canary Coalition, Carolina’s Clean Air Coalition, NC Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN), NC Interfaith Power & Light, Mountain Voices Alliance and many others organized three unauthorized citizen-initiated hearings on Cliffside in Charlotte, Asheville and Raleigh, in an effort to prevent the DAQ’s process from passing under the radar of public scrutiny. The proceedings of these three hearings were videotaped, with all written comments and a DVD copy of verbal testimony delivered to the DAQ as well as to several news media outlets. While the DAQ’s only public notice for the Forest City hearing appeared in the small Rutherfordton weekly newspaper, the subsequent citizen’s hearings were publicized through notices in the Asheville Citizen-Times, the Raleigh News and Observer and through a vast grassroots news network on the internet. Reports can be viewed for the Charlotte, Asheville and Raleigh hearings. Predictably, the major news media didn’t announce the citizen’s hearings or show up to report on the testimony. But, the grassroots effort proved strong with more than three hundred people coming to the hearings and close to a hundred testifying. Once again the internet is proving itself as an effective alternative news grapevine, helping to spread the word of the opposition to Cliffside and other proposed coal and nuclear plant construction.

So, despite efforts by state officials, Duke Energy and the corporate media to keep the public in the dark, a groundswell is building to defeat Cliffside. What’s the next step?

The Cliffside plant proposal by Duke Energy is directly linked to energy legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Easley in the 2007 legislative session, under the heading of Senate Bill 3. One of the provisions of S3 reversed a 25 year old ban in North Carolina on the practice of allowing ratepayers to be charged for construction work in progress (CWIP) on new power plants. These CWIP provisions shift the risk of building new polluting plants from the power companies’ shareholders to electric ratepayers, thereby attracting investors and paving the way for Cliffside and subsequent new power plant proposals.

An important next step is to work for the reversal of S3 in the 2008 legislative session. This will be a huge grassroots undertaking that won’t be easy, but it can be and has to be done. S3 passed with close to unanimous votes in both the House and Senate. Its support was wide, but not very deep. From speaking with several legislators after the law passed, it’s obvious that many lacked understanding of that for which they voted. In 2007, legislators were sold a bill of goods and subjected to hard political pressure from industrial interests to pass S3. In 2008 there will have to be a systematic process created to educate our lawmakers on S3 and related issues. This process will have to be accompanied by a hurricane of public pressure to undo what has been done and to chart a new course for meeting future energy demand in North Carolina.

Along with a reversal of S3, it’s important that the General Assembly pass a law mandating a restructuring of utility rates to drive energy reductions, investment in efficiency and the development of renewable resources. Meaningful economic incentive is the only motivation that will result in massive change of behavior by electrical consumers. Conservation and efficiency must be rewarded; wasteful energy use, penalized.

There is also a message the environmental community needs to convey to traditionally progressive members of the General Assembly who abandoned principles and towed the industry line in the last session: The environmental community is not to be taken for granted. If you don’t have the commitment to stand strongly behind the environment on important issues like S3, you will be fairly criticized, publicly and with full disclosure. Short of dropping an atomic bomb on North Carolina, there is nothing that could be more devastating to the environment and to the health of every child, woman and man in the state, than operating another utility-scale coal-burning power plant in our state. If you won’t take a stand against CWIP and/or Cliffside, then for what great cause are you saving your political capital?

The list is long of legislators who should be ashamed of themselves for their sheep-like resolve in the last session, starting with the Speaker of the House, Joe Hackney and President Pro-Tem Marc Basnight, going down the ranks to the Chair of the House Energy and Efficiency Committee, Pricey Harrison, and staunch environmental advocates like Representatives Jennifer Weiss and Phil Haire and Senators Joe Sam Queen, Martin Nesbitt, John Snow and so many others who have been viewed as champions of the environment in the past, but were no heroes this time when push came to shove. Legislators were told there would be brownouts “like what happened in California” if new power plants were not built to prepare for the growing population and “our growing energy demand.” They were told it was their responsibility to ensure that when their constituents “turned on the switch, the lights would come on.” And so these well-educated and informed progressive legislators acted on their fears, rather than on their knowledge, ignoring climate change, mercury toxicity and water shortages. They ignored the fact that energy reductions could meet future energy demand without the devastating consequences, with much less expense and much more benefit to health, environment and the economy than burning more coal. One of the most painful moments I experienced while lobbying against S3 in Raleigh last summer was hearing Representative Jennifer Weiss chastise me for my unwillingness to “compromise” after I urged her to vote against the bill. Compromise what? My children’s lungs? My grandchildren’s future? Wake up Representative Weiss! There has been too much compromise. Ninety-five percent of our energy is currently and unnecessarily derived from nuclear energy and fossil fuels, yielding devastating results. Where is the balance? What is left to compromise? The construction of even one more coal-burning power plant will by far negate any greenhouse gas emission gains from the so-called REPS provisions in S3 and many other efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Your computer needs PowerPoint to view this link). This was not a compromise. It was a sellout.

There were genuine heroes in the General Assembly last year. Senators Janet Cowell and Ellie Kinnaird, and eleven members of the House including Representatives Paul Luebke, Susan Fisher, Charles Thomas and others who had the backbone to stand up to oppose S3 in the face of tremendous political pressure. These are the people who deserve the full support and commitment of the environmental community. This is the core on which to build a movement.

The dynamics within the legislative process need to be reversed. It is the environmental community, backed by massive public support, that will have to apply the irresistible political pressure on members of the General Assembly to repeal S3 while passing a rate restructuring mandate and other meaningful measures that will shift the course of our energy future toward efficiency, conservation and renewable resource technologies. Don’t listen to anyone who says this can’t be done and the environmental community doesn’t have the clout to posture in this way. Nonsense. A large majority of the general population wants strong action to address climate change issues. Environmental lobbyists need to learn how to flex that muscle and rid themselves of the inferiority complex developed over years of living with the status of representing a small minority. They have to learn how to look legislators straight in the eye and say, “No. That provision or that compromise is unacceptable. If you want the backing of Citizens for a Survivable Future you’ll have to meet our standards,” and walk away if necessary.

To change government policies there will need to be activities outside of the legislative arena, as well. A genuine movement has to arise to create a new political atmosphere in North Carolina and beyond. Many more people will have to become active in organizing and in participating. Utility company executives and boards need to hear from ratepayers that they don’t want their money spent on new polluting power plants. People reading this can download return address-sized labels that read, “NO MORE COAL!” and attach them to utility bill payments, letters to legislators, editors and other appropriate documents and places. There is also a petition you can sign and circulate to stop Cliffside.

NC WARN is organizing a campaign to blitz Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers with mail and email to pressure him into abandoning the Cliffside expansion and to be consistent with his recent statements on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Find out more about this campaign and send your message to Rogers.

It may be time for people and communities to exercise economic clout to make industrial and government leaders listen to reason. Boycotting has been a successful grassroots tool used throughout the history of social movements. The Canary Coalition and other groups are considering organizing for periodic “power boycotts” to flex the muscle of electrical consumers. This would be a way that everyone could participate in an effective action from the confines of one’s own home. Turn off the main breaker at a coordinated time and period and then turn it on again at a specified time, to protest plans to build Cliffside and other new power plants. This strategy has great potential for mass involvement. It has potential for economic impact against the power industry. It has potential for growth and expansion. And it has potential for unifying the environmental community with consumer groups, with civil rights organizations and other social action groups in a common activity that would be extremely powerful. Stay tuned for more on this.

For those who are skeptical that citizens have the power to stop Duke Energy and Cliffside, view the list of forty-two power plants that have been successfully stopped in twenty-two states in the last three years (PowerPoint necessary).

Rise and shine.