State EPD closes book on proposed coal plant in Middle Georgia

Exhaust rises from smokestacks in front of piles of coal in Thompsons, Texas. In Georgia, state officials recently brought an end to a 12-year effort to build a new coal plant in Washington County. Plant Washington was believed to have been the last new coal plant proposed for construction in the nation. AP PHOTO / DAVID J. PHILLIP, FILE
Exhaust rises from smokestacks in front of piles of coal in Thompsons, Texas. In Georgia, state officials recently brought an end to a 12-year effort to build a new coal plant in Washington County. Plant Washington was believed to have been the last new coal plant proposed for construction in the nation. AP PHOTO / DAVID J. PHILLIP, FILE

State environmental officials have denied a request to extend the construction date for what was believed to have been the last proposed coal plant in the nation.

>> Related: Juliette residents concerned about coal ash from Georgia Power plant

Plant Washington was conceived in 2008 by Power4Georgians, a now-defunct consortium of electric membership corporations (EMCs). But approvals for the plant, which would have been located in Sandersville, dragged on as cost estimates ballooned, the organizer was indicted for fraud, and environmental advocates ramped up pressure to prevent such a significant investment in coal just as the industry was in decline.

In a March 6 letter addressed to Power4Georgians — most recently headed by former Georgia Board of Regents member Dean Alford — the state Environmental Protection Division denied an April 2016 request to extend the plant’s construction permit. The project had been dormant for several years, and the letter represents the paperwork to officially close the file, said Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the EPD. The permit revocation is final, and a new permit application would be required for any future project, he said.

“I am thankful for the EPD’s decision so we can move on from this outdated and unnecessary project,” said Katherine Cummings, a member of the Washington County-based Fall-line Alliance for a Clean Environment (FACE) and a longtime critic of the 12-year-old project. “Plant Washington posed a threat to family budgets, community health, and natural resources in and beyond Middle Georgia. It’s certainly a moment of closure and relief that this polluting giant will never be built.”

The project came with a proposed construction cost of $2.1 billion, and consumer groups argued that it could have dramatically increased local electric bills. The project almost immediately hit snags when Dwight Brown, organizer of Power4Georgians, was indicted and forced to retire as head of Cobb EMC based on a settlement agreement with co-op customers who sued the utility for spinning a nonprofit into a for-profit subsidiary. The charges against Brown were eventually dropped.

By 2013, most of the EMCs that had funneled millions into the project had dropped out of Power4Georgians, including Cobb EMC. Alford, who saw his own legal troubles growing in late 2019 when he was charged with racketeering and criminal attempt to commit theft by taking, stuck with the project, previously predicting that Plant Washington would move forward as planned and would be built by 2017.

Alford could not be reached by phone, and his attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A coalition of environmental groups stuck with the project as well, continuing opposition even as it seemed less and less likely that the plant would move forward.

At one point, Plant Washington was among a handful of potential coal plants that may have been far enough along in planning to be exempt from new federal environmental rules that capped the amount of carbon pollution emissions from power plants.

In addition to environmental concerns, the economics of building a coal plant became increasingly questionable as access to renewable energy grew, said Stephen Stetson, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

“It has never made sense and it has made less and less sense every day as the price of renewables has consistently come down,” Stetson said. “The atmosphere in Georgia is ripe for renewables. You just have to look at dollars and cents.”