Utility plans added curbs on mercury

An artist's rendering of Santee Cooper's proposed coal-fired power plant in Florence County.

Santee Cooper plans to stick with its effort to build a proposed $1.25 billion coal-fired power plant in Florence County, but will install improved pollution controls to further reduce the amount of poisonous mercury sent up the stacks.

At the same time, the state-owned energy company launched a public relations effort Tuesday called "The Real Story on Mercury," which is designed to portray the nation's coal-fired power plants as only a tiny part of the mercury pollution problem.

In an updated analysis, Santee Cooper said the state's need for cheap electric power makes the coal plant the best short-term alternative. Without it, the company said, it will not have enough electricity to meet growth needs and "to ensure the lights remain on for all Santee Cooper's two million direct and indirect customers."

The Florence plant on the Great Pee Dee River is planned to come online in 2013, just as the company's ability to meet needs would fall short. The company hopes to have a new nuclear power plant online by 2016 to provide for longer-term needs.

Environmentalists accuse the company of trading the health and well-being of citizens for cheap power. That cheap power might end up being more costly, they say, as the nation moves toward stricter regulation of greenhouse gases, especially carbon, which coal-fired plants release in massive amounts.

Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, called Santee Cooper's public relations campaign "nothing more than an effort to deflect blame from its role as the state's single biggest mercury emitter. ... No amount of public relations lipstick will make this pig pretty."

Santee Cooper said the scrubbers at the Florence plant are state-of-the-art in reducing greenhouse gases. The company also reworked the plant's pollution controls to further reduce mercury releases by installing a fabric filter called a baghouse.

That is expected to cut mercury releases to 57 pounds per generating unit per year, about a 95 percent removal. The company's early mercury scrubbing system would have removed an estimated 93 percent of the poisonous metal.

Mercury is a powerful neuro-toxin, and even tiny amounts can cause numerous health problems, particularly in children. The amount of mercury in a thermometer could prove hazardous.

Plans initially call for one generating unit at the facility, but a second one could be added. Previously, the plant received preliminary approval from state environmental regulators to release 69 pounds of mercury per unit.

The plant is characterized by environmentalists as antiquated technology. Opposition to the plant mounted late last year after The Post and Courier ran a three-day series revealing that many people who ate fish from mercury-contaminated sections of the state's rivers have elevated levels of mercury in their systems.

The biggest man-made cause of mercury pollution is coal-fired factories and power plants, according to studies.

Santee Cooper revisited its mercury pollution-control proposal at the Florence plant earlier this year after a federal appeals court struck down the Bush administration's proposed "cap-and-trade" program, which would have allowed utilities to buy and sell mercury pollution credits.

In effect, that program would have permitted the Pee Dee plant to release more mercury than the Environmental Protection Agency normally would allow. Consequently, Santee Cooper conducted a review of mercury releases and came up with the baghouse plan.

In its "The Real Story on Mercury" effort, Santee Cooper emphasizes that "only about 1 percent of the entire world's mercury emissions are produced by U.S. power plants," and that the bulk comes from fast industrializing China and other Asian nations.

The company also contends that local and regional mercury pollution may not be from a local or regional coal-fired plant, because mercury pollution can travel thousands of miles. However, several studies, including one this year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, indicate that about half of mercury pollution in an area comes from nearby plants.

Holman said Santee Cooper is using misleading information. "To suggest that most local mercury comes from coal plants in China rather than from mercury-belching plants in South Carolina defies common sense and sound science. Santee Cooper needs to help solve our state's mercury problem, not make it worse."

Santee Cooper also said mercury is just one of life's risks. "We do not live in a perfect world," the company said. And just as there are risks in taking X-rays to help in medical diagnoses, "...when we turn on lights, air conditioners or computers, we need electrical power."

Environmentalists counter, saying that is a bogus argument because Santee Cooper has rejected alternative forms of energy production that produce no or very little mercury pollution, such as gas-fired power plants.

Late last year the U.S. Department of Interior urged Santee Cooper to abandon the coal-fired plant proposal for a cleaner one. Santee Cooper rejected the alternatives as experimental or impractical. Approval still depends on months of regulatory review.