Judge strikes down power plant permit

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Both sides have claimed victory in an August court decision about emissions permits for a controversial coal-fired plant being built by Dominion Virginia Power in Wise County.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret P. Spencer determined that an “escape hatch” in a permit regulating the $1.8 billion plant’s mercury emissions violates the federal Clean Air Act.  The permit was one of two issued by the state’s Air Pollution Control Board last June. The mercury permit set a limit for plant emissions.  However, it indicated that the limit could be readjusted if Dominion proved the plant had difficulty meeting it after at least a year of operation.

Dominion spokesman Jim Norvelle says the company doesn’t expect the decision to affect the plant’s completion timeline of 2012.

Several environmental groups and some Wise County residents opposed the plant for fear that it would discharge tons of pollutants. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit saying the mercury permit authorized emission limits to be set after the plant’s construction. Spencer agreed.

Cale Jaffe, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, called the opinion “an important victory for the health and welfare of Virginians. Once a coal plant is completed, it may prove very difficult to retrofit after the fact to remedy violations of the Clean Air Act.  So this decision is essential for assuring that the Clean Air Act’s most stringent health-based standards will be met before a coal plant is constructed.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center had challenged both permits issued by the board on seven grounds, but Spencer agreed with just one.

Dominion is about a third of the way through the plant’s construction. “We are reviewing our options,“ Norvelle said. “Judge Spencer agreed with Dominion on six of the seven points of appeal, and the remaining point we believe can be successfully dealt with so that we can continue building the power station. We do not object to the removal of the so called ‘escape hatch’ in condition 33 of the permit.”

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