Smoke on the Water: Stopping a Coal-fired Power Plant in Arkansas
When I asked her about mercury, she said: “The amount of mercury distributed over the 18,000-acre intervener property [owned by the hunt clubs] over the life of the plant would be no more than the size of a golf ball. So there should be no concern.” As “a prediction for the future” she cited the abundant wildlife at the 30-year-old Flint Creek coal plant in Gentry, Arkansas, where, inexplicably, SWEPCO plants food plots to bring in those pesky deer and where thermal pollution keeps a wastewater-retention basin ice free all winter and therefore attracts so many eagles, shorebirds, and wading birds that Audubon Arkansas has designated it an Important Bird Area (IBA). Finally, she explained that to help erase its carbon footprint, her company is doing things like planting trees in South America.
I couldn’t have agreed more with McCellon-Allen when she described the Hempstead County Hunting Club’s Grassy Lake as “absolutely beautiful.” She had toured it on September 20, 2007, eight days before I did. The lake, more marsh than impoundment, is part of the pristine, wildlife-rich, 19,000-acre Little River Bottoms IBA—one of the largest contiguous tracts of fish and wildlife habitat on the Gulf coastal plain and virtually abutting the proposed coal-plant site.
I had the advantage of first seeing Grassy Lake in the pre-dawn under a nearly full moon. Piloting motorized pirogues were hunt club members Yancey Reynolds, a real-estate agent, and Johnny Wilson, a schoolteacher. Wilson guided Audubon Arkansas director of bird conservation Dan Scheiman, a member of the federal Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Team. Audubon Arkansas executive director Ken Smith and I rode with Reynolds.
Moorhens bobbed through carpets of duckweed. Anhingas set their wings and glided toward open water. Roosting cattle egrets—strung across old-growth baldcypresses like Christmas popcorn—glowed in the moonlight. Wood ducks squealed, and tight formations of blue-winged teal rose, dipped, circled, and splashed. Two adult bald eagles, still hanging around their enormous nest, sculled off through the mist. Presently, the half-risen sun lit the wings of two roseate spoonbills—the first observed here by Audubon field personnel and thus the 128th species recorded at the site. Twenty-seven of those 128 species, including the wood stork and the endangered interior least tern, are considered by Audubon to be “birds of conservation interest,” meaning they’re in varying degrees of trouble. Ivory-billed woodpeckers occurred here historically, and unconfirmed sightings persist.
As the day warmed, squadrons of dragonflies appeared, and the head and snout of an alligator pushed up through the duckweed, looking so much like a log we debated which it was until it submerged. When the millinery trade threatened egrets in the early 20th century, Grassy Lake provided one of their last refuges. In the 1960s, when alligators had been extirpated from the rest of the state, Grassy Lake still sustained a viable population.
Hunt-club members are said by locals to be “rich,” which may be partially true by southwest Arkansas standards. They are said to be NIMBYs, which they admit. (“Not in this backyard,” exclaims Addison.) And they are said to be obsessed with ducks to the exclusion of the rest of creation, including people, which is false. Johnny Wilson responds to a public statement attributed to the Fulton fire chief that the plant is wanted “for our children and grandchildren” with: “We don’t want the plant, for exactly the same reason.” And when we encountered a rare spider orchid Reynolds and Wilson couldn’t contain their excitement. They and other members place screens around nests of alligator snapping turtles (endangered in fact, if not fiat) to protect the eggs from skunks and coons—this despite the fact that alligator snappers often prey on ducks. “I’m not mad at the birds; I just like to see them,” says Wilson, who has been coming to Grassy Lake since 1946, the year he was born, and whose great uncle was a charter member in 1897.
Grassy Lake and the forests and wetlands owned by five other local hunt clubs serve as a reservoir that provides the public with a steady flow of fish, wildlife, clean water, and clean air. In the 1970s the National Park Service wanted to make Grassy Lake a Natural National Landmark because it “contains the finest example of a sizeable stand of virgin baldcypress in Arkansas.” It would have done so had not hunt-club members feared a tourist invasion.
More remarkable than the NIMBYism is the fact that the hunt clubs have been able to protect these 18,000 acres since the 19th century. Another Hempstead County Hunting Club member, Mary O’Boyle, is the great-granddaughter of the club’s founder, William Buchanan, a distant relative of the President and a lumber and railroad baron. “Even though he was cutting down every other tree on the planet,” she says, “he realized what a special place this was and that this kind of habitat needed to be preserved. On his deathbed he had friends place a mattress in a canoe and take him out onto Grassy Lake so he could see it one last time.”
Fifteen miles north of the proposed coal-plant site is the Pond Creek National Wildlife Refuge, 27,500 acres of mature bottomland hardwoods, oxbow lakes, rivers, and cypress sloughs. Forty miles north of that is the 14,460-acre Caney Creek Wilderness of the Ouachita National Forest. But not a lot of coal-plant proponents are much into sloughs, swamps, or wild forests.