A View of Okatibbee Reservoir looking northeast towards a portion of the potential mine's footprint. Flight courtesy of Southwings. On Tuesday December 13th, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality’s Environmental Permit Board will meet in Jackson to decide whether Mississippi Power Co. (MPCO) and North American Coal Corp (NACC) will receive the necessary permits to begin mining dirty lignite coal in Kemper County. If the past is any indication of the future, the permits will be granted – read on to see why.
The permits are for five years during which time a large, experimental coal to gas combined cycle power plant will be built on top of the lignite coal seam. This technology has never proven successful on a commercial level and there are serious doubts about whether the coal gasification technology will work profitably.
Many individuals and organizations, including GRN, have opposed this project for a variety of reasons. Mississippi Power’s ratepayers have the most immediate issue to complain about. They are funding the $2.8 billion project for 40 years into the future after an initial 200 million in taxpayer dollars from the U.S. Dept. of Energy grant money runs out. The utility also gets several hundred million dollars in tax breaks.
The mining operation will disturb hundreds of acres at a time and the polluted storm water that runs off the vast site will be “treated” in simple sedimentation ponds before it is discharged to small creeks draining to the nearby Okatibbee Reservoir. We are concerned about this runoff water, including coal pile runoff and pumped mine water, and what it will do the Okatibbee, 5 miles downstream. NACCO’s plan would sacrifice healthy waters in order to build the ponds as cheaply as possible. What could go wrong? Not so far away, in central Tennessee, there are rivers like the Obey that died in the 1940s and stayed that way for decades due to acid runoff from coal mines.
Why will the permits for this dirty, expensive and unnecessary project probably be granted? By state statute, the MDEQ Permit board is populated with employees from executive agencies and with direct appointees of the governor. The board almost always defers to DEQ staff engineers. The permit board members answer to the governor either directly or through a very short agency chain of command, and it seems clear that Governor Barbour, and many other politicians in the state, are more interested in helping Mississippi Power build this boondoggle with the ratepayers’ money then in protecting the health of Mississippi’s communities and environment.
If you go to the permit board meeting you might witness a little sound and fury if one of the bolder permit board members asks a tough sounding question, but more than likely, the vote will be to accept the DEQ staff engineer’s recommendations and to grant the permits. Even if the Board’s decision is a foregone conclusion, it is an important place for the public to voice their objections, as it is as a place to build an administrative record for use on a legal appeal.
Speaking of legal appeals, the Mississippi Supreme Court will be conducting oral arguments on Sierra Club’s lawsuit over the Mississippi Public Service Commission’s decision to approve a plan that forces ratepayers to pay for Kemper coal on Wednesday, December 14th at 1:30. If you are interested in learning more about the hearing, or would like help finding a ride to it, email Raleigh@healthygulf.org.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's Assistant Director of Science and Water Policy.