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Florence County coal plant backers pack hearing

PAMPLICO -- Supporters of a new coal-fired power plant in Florence County turned out in droves Thursday to urge state approval of a plant they said would bring prosperity to the jobs-starved Pee Dee region.

The plant also would release more than 90 pounds of mercury and tons of other pollutants annually, including gases that will contribute to global warming. Many rivers in the area are full of mercury-polluted fish people catch to eat.

But at a public hearing attended by about 500 people, backers of the plant said they have confidence the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Santee Cooper power company will protect their health and the environment.

"This community has never supported any project ... as much as they support this one," said Florence County resident Tom Smith, a local attorney and former state senator. "DHEC's approval of these permits is not the end, it's just the beginning."

It is estimated the plant could bring 100 full-time jobs with salaries averaging $50,000, and 1,400 construction jobs to build the plant.

Supporters by the bus load

Many plant supporters came to the public hearing on tour buses, sporting green shirts with the slogan "Got Power" on the front. Santee Cooper did not organize the buses, which riders said were chartered by a Charleston industry. Other plant backers wore stickers on their suit lapels in support for the $1 billion project.

Santee Cooper employees and representatives of the state's electrical cooperatives spoke, as did influential business leaders. Santee Cooper supplies power to many of the state's cooperatives, which serve about 2 million customers.

Otis Rawl, chief operating officer with the state Chamber of Commerce, said the business community is frustrated with what he called delays in permitting the plant and said businesses would take its concerns to the Legislature.

The plant is supposed to be up and running by 2013. The power company applied for an air permit in 2006.

Santee Cooper says it needs to build the plant near this rural crossroads to meet future demand. Otherwise, company officials have said eastern South Carolina could face power shortages or higher electricity rates. Environmentalists say the company can supply power through conservation and efficiency measures, instead of building a new coal plant.

Debate escalates

The utility's plan to use coal for power comes at a time of increasing concerns and escalating debate about coal's impact on the environment. Pollution from coal-fired power plants contributes heavily to global warming, a phenomenon many scientists say has contributed to sea-level rise and other environmental problems.

Coal plants are also a major source of mercury which was the focus of DHEC's public hearing. Because of a federal court ruling earlier this year, DHEC has had to re-evaluate the issue and come up with stricter mercury rules for Santee Cooper's proposal. Environmentalists say allowing the company to release more than 90 pounds of mercury annually is still far too dangerous.

On Thursday, environmentalists urged DHEC to consider the health impacts of mercury from the plant. The S.C. Coastal Conservation League, the Southern Environmental Law Center, local environmental groups and a collection of college students spoke against the plant.

"We're not talking about some legal technicality," law center attorney Gudrun Thompson said. "People's health is at stake."

Environmentalists challenged Santee Cooper executive Lonnie Carter's assertion that mercury from the plant won't have much effect on fish in local rivers, such as the Great Pee Dee.

Carter said only about 1 percent of the world's mercury emissions come from American power plants. So getting rid of all of the nation's coal plants would have negligible impact on mercury levels in the U.S.," Carter said.

Thompson said recent studies show that about 70 percent of mercury contamination comes from local sources.

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