MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

April 26, 2013

Meeting takes on issue of coal-fired plants

Attendees express concerns over health, environment

A couple dozen people showed up Thursday to share concerns about living in the shadows of a coal-burning power plant and hear ideas about how that might change.

Denise Griffin, a social worker who worked several years with the Department of Human Services, said she was “appalled”  by the health of the clients she found here. Even more appalling, for her, was the fact the coal-burning plant just outside Muskogee’s city limits continues to thrive.

“There argument was jobs — you shut that plant down and you will lose jobs and livelihoods,” Griffin said. “But on the other hand we have all these children with asthma, and the doctors just shrugged.”

Several others who turned out to hear a grassroots organizer with the Sierra Club’s Oklahoma chapter shared similar concerns. Those concerns centered not only on plant emissions, they touched on the dust that blows from coal piles and the fly ash that remains once the fossil fuel is spent.

Whitney Pearson, an associate organizing representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, laid out the organization’s three-point initiative to end the use of coal. Pearson said the goal is to stop constructing new coal-powered plants, replace existing facilities and keep unmined coal beneath the earth where it cannot be used as fuel.

While that may be a tall order, Pearson said the Sierra Club’s initiative has helped stop the construction of 174 coal-fired plants since 2002. The organization’s work also has been credited for retiring — or the scheduled retirement of — 144 existing facilities that have switched to cleaner alternatives.

“The Sierra Club prefers replacing coal with renewables, like wind and solar,” Pearson said. “But we understand natural gas will play a role during the transition.”

Given its close proximity to Muskogee, OG&E’s generation plant got a lot of attention during the meeting. Some of that discussion involved the company’s decision to challenge the federal haze rule designed to reduce or eliminate the emission of fine particle pollution, or soot.

Brian Alford, an OG&E spokesman, said the company understands the “Sierra Club takes an aggressive position against fossil-fired electric generation, especially coal.” But OG&E officials, he said, believes “a realistic approach to protecting the environment must address other issues that are important to OG&E customers, such as affordability and reliability.”

“OG&E’s mission is to provide reasonably priced and reliable power to our customers, and the low cost of coal is key,” said Alford, who did not attend the meeting. “Coal helps ensure reliability when winds don’t blow and provides a hedge against high natural gas prices. And, the ultra low-sulphur coal from Wyoming lessens our emissions, which fall within the EPA’s thresholds.”

Alford said since 2007, OG&E has reduced emissions significantly and added renewable energy produced at seven wind farms, which provides 12 percent of the company’s generation mix. Alford said efforts have been made to bolster conservation efforts, installing 800,000 smart meters and providing consumers with an online tool to help manage energy use.

Sylvia Swan and others who attended the Sierra Club meeting tended to agree more change is needed. That change, Swan said, starts with people — the consumers — at the local level.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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