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Counties scrap over power plant

Heard County Plant borders smog zone


About 40 miles south of Atlanta, far from the congestion and noise of the city, horses and cattle graze over serene pastures. Here, near the border between Heard and Coweta counties, pollution seems a faraway problem.

But this bucolic setting is shaping up to be an environmental battleground. On one side is Dynegy, a power company eager to provide the juice for an energy-hungry city. On the other side are neighboring residents, worried that another power company will tip the scales toward more pollution.

Heard County lies just outside the non-attainment area, a 12-county region around Atlanta that the federal government says fails to meet minimum standards for air quality. Houston-based Dynegy is building a "peak power plant," which in layman's terms means it will be used to generate electricity only during summer business hours when air conditioning use is at its peak. It's also the time of year when smog and ground level ozone levels are at their highest.

Nine Dynegy employees will operate the $100 million plant about 1,500 hours a year, mostly in the summer.

Just as significantly -- at least to Heard County officials -- the plant will generate $150,000 in its first year for county coffers. Over time, the county will gradually escalate its property tax rates; by 2020, Dynegy's annual tax bill will be $600,000.

But Coweta County residents say anything that could worsen Atlanta's air should be built as far from their county as possible.

Unfortunately for the folks in north Heard county and south Coweta County, their little slice of rural farmland heaven is prime real estate for power companies looking to build new plants.

That's because power plants can't be constructed just anywhere. If they burn natural gas to generate power, as the one Dynegy is building in Heard County does, they need a large natural gas pipeline nearby. They also need a body of water and a national power grid nearby, so the company that owns the plant can sell electricity to whoever needs it.

But there's one more reason why Dynegy is so attracted to the north side of Heard County: it's about as close as possible to metro Atlanta without being in the non-attainment area, where new power plant construction is forbidden.

"Power companies find it rough going to try to build in the metro Atlanta non-attainment area, so what they do is literally take one step over the county line and feel they are not technically infringing on the EPA's guidelines," says Coweta County Rural Preservation Society President Rick Brown. "In other words, it's a technological nightmare. It's big, polluting industry with its tailpipe pointing at Atlanta."

The Dynegy plant is the first of what could be six natural gas power plants in Heard County alone. Other companies with plans to build are Tenaska, Georgia Power and Oglethorpe Power. A total of 13 natural gas powered plants are planned or are now under construction in Georgia.

In Heard County, Tenaska has already begun construction on a power plant down the street from the Dynegy plant; Georgia Power received its permit to construct a similar plant in July.

While natural gas-powered plants are cleaner than coal-burning power plants, they still release nitrous oxide, one of the main ingredients in ground level ozone and smog.

On Sept. 8, Coweta County, the Coweta County Rural Preservation Society and four individual plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Heard County and Dynegy, demanding that work on the power plant cease.

The lawsuit, filed almost 18 months after Heard County approved Dynegy's rezoning request, alleges that part of the power plant project is in Coweta County, and that Coweta commissioners didn't know anything about it until bulldozers began clearing the site.

Moreover, the lawsuit charges, Dynegy and Heard County officials did not notify residents of both counties who live near the plant that the area was rezoned rural agricultural to industrial.

"As far as we're concerned, they violated all the zoning laws and robbed us of our right to due process as citizens," Brown says. "Dynegy is actually encroaching into Coweta without ever making an effort to rezone the area in Coweta."

"That's all rhetoric," counters Heard County Commission Chairman Larry Pike. "There's nothing to those [allegations]. As far as I know they did notify everyone involved. I knew about it. Most people I talk to knew about it."

Says Dynegy spokesman John Sousa: "We went above and beyond our responsibility of letting folks know we were planning to build a power generation plant there."

Brown says to expect other lawsuits against power plant construction in Heard County, specifically the $250 million Tenaska plant now under construction.

Pike says the plant "will contribute to the air problem a little bit, but folks like MARTA advertise the fact that natural gas is clean. People boil water with it, and that's exactly what the plant will do to generate electricity."

If the lawsuit fails, the plant will be operational next June.

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