Smoke on the Water: Stopping a Coal-fired Power Plant in Arkansas
Nationwide, coal-fired power plants appear to be on the way out. But in southwest Arkansas--next to some of the finest fish and wildlife habitat anywhere--one may be on the way in.
Incredibly, the site was chosen without anyone from the consulting team AEP had retained to do the selection study ever laying eyes on it. When I asked McCellon-Allen where the Hempstead site alternative finished in the ranking study, she said, "Of course, you've been coached by another party or you wouldn't have asked that question." But I hadn't been coached. In the course of my research I'd learned that the site was low on the list, and I was merely seeking accurate figures. I had to acquire them elsewhere.
In the 27-criteria selection study, conducted by an independent contractor, the Hempstead site finished seventh out of 10. Later, when the study was expanded to include Texas, it finished ninth out of 12. The study examined sites on two levels--"must criteria," which had to be satisfied or the site would be rejected, and "want criteria," which would merely be nice to have. The "must criteria" included the stipulation that the site not be within 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) of what the Clean Air Act designates a Class 1 Area. But the Caney Creek Wilderness of the Ouachita National Forest is a Class 1 Area, and it's 90 kilometers away.
"I think AEP came down here to exploit what is one of the more remote and desperate areas in Arkansas," offers Hempstead County Hunting Club member Willis Smith. "I don't believe they had any idea they were going to run into the environmental issues that they did. I think they thought it was going to be the easiest place they could go."
With Audubon Arkansas' Ken Smith and Dan Scheiman, I visited other beautiful and productive fish and wildlife habitat near the proposed site--for example, the Millwood Lake IBA, where great and snowy egrets adorned baldcypresses older than our nation and stalked mudflats two miles out, showing in the shadows of thunderheads and drowned timber like marshmallows strewn on asphalt. Ospreys and Caspian terns patrolled open water. In the Little River, below the dam, two fishermen were cleaning up on white bass and channel catfish. Yellow mayflies swarmed around us, and turtles (red-eared sliders, as far as we could determine) drifted in the slow, nearshore current.
At the Game and Fish Commission's Grandview Prairie Wildlife Management Area, part of another IBA, we inspected perhaps the most endangered habitat in the nation--blackland prairie, an important sanctuary for grassland birds.
West of Grassy Lake, Yellow Creek Hunting Club member Dick Broach guided us up a wide, slow flow teeming with wading birds, turtles, alligators, and enormous largemouth bass. Broach, a fisheries biologist who retired in 1997 after bootstrapping his way to deputy director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, didn't strike me as "rich" any more than did Yancey Reynolds, Johnny Wilson, or Willis Smith (also self-made men). But in southwest Arkansas, national norms don't apply.
"We're very apprehensive about mercury," Broach remarked. "And we're worried about all the rail traffic. There will be spillage, and the transmission corridor will cut through old-growth cypress on one side or old-growth bottomland hardwoods on the other. I don't see how this can possibly survive a challenge in a court of law. I hope it doesn't have to go that far."
Where the creek started to narrow, Broach beached his aluminum motorboat, and we stepped into a wet, fragrant forest of Osage orange, towering shagbark and water hickories, cottonwoods, and oaks. As we hiked, we talked about fish, wildlife, and the future.
When I asked what the chances are that the environmental community and the hunt clubs could stop the coal plant, Ken Smith said, "I'd say we have a 50/50 chance. Before the Arkansas Public Service Commission began its hearings in August, I think our chances were well below that. But the governor has appointed two commissioners, including a new chairman. Since then the commission has raised such issues as mercury, carbon, habitat, and even IBAs."
America needs more energy but not more coal energy. There are all manner of alternatives, not the least of which is not wasting energy--a strategy we have never tried. "We should look at available gas," says Addison. "There are gas plants that are mothballed or used for different functions. We should look at other power plants that for one reason or another are not online, or operating below capacity. We should look at renewable energy and energy conservation. There is no reason to build another coal plant anywhere. And each one we build we'll regret 30 years from now."
The tenure of most corporate executives and elected officials is less than a decade, so few care what happens 30 years hence. But if state and federal regulators allow AEP to build its proposed coal plant, there will be people doing even more regretting than hunt-club members. They will be the children whose lives local politicians and their constituents say they're seeking to improve.