The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control should use all the leverage it can muster to ensure that any new coal-powered plant is required to keep toxic emissions to reasonable levels before startup permits are issued.
Santee Cooper hopes to build two 600-megawatt coal-fired generators along the Little Pee Dee River near Johnsonville in the northeastern part of the state to keep up with expanding power demand. If the utility gets permission to build two nuclear reactors near Columbia, only one coal-burning generator would be built.
But environmentalists and other South Carolinians living near the proposed site are worried about the pollutants that would be produced by even one generator. Of particular concern is the amount of mercury that would be released.
Santee Cooper officials recently boasted that, because of the permitting process, they have found ways to further reduce mercury emissions using a method called a bag house. The bag house, which would be an addition to environmental control measures already in place, is a common name for a technology that uses engineered fabric filter material to screen mercury from emissions.
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"The good news is we went through this process and decided we could reduce mercury emissions to a maximum of 57 pounds per year," said Mollie Gore, a spokeswoman for Santee Cooper.
But officials with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has been monitoring the permitting process, notes that emissions of 57 pounds of mercury a year would make this facility one of the dirtiest power plants built in recent years. They point to similar-sized plants in Virginia and Pennsylvania that release less than 5 pounds of mercury into the air each year, 10 times less than what Santee Cooper claims is the best level it can achieve.
The law center also suggests that Santee Cooper could generate a similar amount of power at a comparable cost using natural gas. A gas-powered generator would produce almost no mercury and significantly fewer air pollutants.
DHEC announced Wednesday that it would hold a public hearing regarding Santee Cooper's proposal, 6 p.m. July 22, at Hannah-Pamplico High School in Pamplico. The meeting will offer an opportunity for participants to ask questions about the permit application process.
We hope concerned South Carolinians will demand that the utility will be held to high environmental standards regarding mercury emissions and other pollutants. If the technology is available to reduce emissions to well below the 57 pounds per year that Santee Cooper is claiming as its best achievable limit, the permit should be delayed.
The time to establish sensible environmental controls is now, before any generators are built, not five years down the road after they are up and running.