Buncombe County Commission

Power plant lease approved

Julie Brandt

Worth a thousand words: Julie Brandt used Progress Energy’s illustration to raise questions about Woodfin’s future viewshed. photos by Jonathan Welch

An overflow crowd spilled out of the chamber at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ Jan. 16 meeting. Almost all were there to oppose leasing county-owned land to Progress Energy for $1 per year to site a low-sulfur-oil-fired power plant in Woodfin (see “The Price of Progress” elsewhere in this issue). At present, Progress Energy buys power from outside the state to meet peak demand, but that contract will expire in 2009.

The utility’s coal-fired Skyland plant is the largest point source of air pollution in the county, and the proposed plant will boost emissions during periods of peak electrical use — notably the summer months, when air quality in the mountains is already at its worst.

In the course of a public hearing, Chairman Nathan Ramsey affirmed that the commissioners had been meeting secretly with Progress Energy over the past two years. “But there was never a quorum present, so it was legal,” he said. Contacted later, Commissioners David Gantt and David Young told Xpress they hadn’t attended any of those meetings. “I knew they were working on something, but [County Manager] Wanda Greene drove the negotiations,” said Young. Commissioner Carol Peterson repeated Ramsey’s assertion that meetings with less than three commissioners present are legal.

Not everyone agrees. When the commissioners met with Asheville City Council members in sub-quorum groups in 2005 to discuss water issues, attorneys for the N.C. Press Association advised Xpress that such practices violate the state’s open-meetings law. While elected officials may meet casually in small numbers, courts have ruled that intentionally ducking the rules is a violation of both the intent and spirit of the law, the attorneys said.

Recently retired county General Services Director Bob Hunter, whose former responsibilities included landfill management, offered his opinion that the plant would be a suitable use for the site. After subtracting the maintenance costs for the former landfill, the county’s net gain in revenues would be about $300,000, which Commissioner David Gantt described as a “drop in the [budgetary] bucket.”

Some three dozen of the more than 100 opponents attending the meeting asked the commissioners to delay their decision for at least 30 days to allow time for alternative proposals for meeting the projected energy needs. But the elected officials didn’t budge.

According to a Jan. 15 e-mail from Young to Asheville resident Nan Davis, at least four of the five commissioners had decided to approve the plan before the public hearing was held.

Asked why the commissioners wouldn’t consider a 30-day delay, Peterson said, “The situation was that there was a deadline; a decision had to be made about delivering power we are already using.”

And Gantt (who told Xpress that he was the holdout), said: “We felt like we weren’t hearing anything new. We’d been getting the same information in phone calls and e-mails.”

Overwhelming opposition

Progress Energy's Ken Maxwell

Power pitch: Progress Energy’s Ken Maxwell told commissioners that an oil-fired plant is the only option. photo by Jonathan Welch

Physicians, engineers, environmental activists, community activists and alternative-energy experts from across the region were among those who spoke against the lease agreement.

Ned Doyle, the founder and director of the annual Southern Energy & Environment Expo, suggested that alternative energy sources could be found “if you would permit us the same time you gave to Progress Energy.” In fact, Doyle asked for much less: a 30-day delay, saying, “Thirty days is not going to significantly impact this process; we can see that from Mr. Maxwell’s presentation. I believe you have equal responsibility to the people of this county as you do to Progress Energy.” Doyle added: “Keep in mind that if you vote in favor of this plant, you are voting to use more foreign oil. We have people fighting and dying in Iraq right now because of foreign oil, and you will be voting for it.”

Woodfin resident Richard Fireman, a retired physician, stressed air pollution’s impacts on children’s health, saying, “All the chemicals that will be emitted by this oil-burning plant are unnecessary.” Speaking on behalf of the North Carolina Council of Churches, he said, “We, the community of faith in North Carolina, ask you to have not one more pound of toxins in our air, in our water, in our food.” Fireman added: “Some have suggested that we take a portion of the taxes from this plant to create green space or invest in alternative energy. This is just hocus-pocus.”

Board member Boone Guyton of the Western North Carolina Green Building Council said: “There’s a recent report for the N.C. Utilities Commission that says that conservation could easily reduce demand by 14 percent by 2017. That would save millions of dollars for ratepayers.”

Heather Rayburn, representing the Mountain Voices Alliance, urged the commissioners to wait 60 to 90 days before making their decision. “This is not a NIMBY issue or a bunch of radicals out to shut down a project for the sake of shutting it down. Rather, we are regular people who realize that our society has got to tackle the climate issue head-on, locally and thoughtfully, rather than doing things in the old way that will only help advance us toward a climatic disaster.”

She continued: “Government, religious leaders, nonprofits, people of all political stripes are getting on board with progressive change in policy. Subsidizing and building an oil-burning plant in our county is a step backwards in this effort.” Rayburn handed the commissioners information about a program in Chicago that has slashed peak energy demand through the use of “smart meters” that help people divert their energy use to off-peak hours.

Dave Hollister of Sundance Power Systems said: “We’re in the business of selling solar energy. One of the things that came to mind is that I would pay $4 a year for that land. In fact, I would offer you $100 a year for that land. Give us 30 days, I bet we can create a better solution that would include renewables, increase the tax base and create a better answer for our community.” With currently available federal and state tax credits for solar power, he explained, “If you invest $72 million, you can get almost half of that back.”

Candler resident Jerry Rice questioned several premises in Maxwell’s presentation. “They said they considered 30 other sites; I’d like to see a list of the other sites that were offered for $1 per year.” Referring to commissioners’ assurances that the plant would still need to be approved by the local air agency, he said: “You talk about air-quality-board approval, but that’s no problem — you appoint that board. The fellow that ran that board for a number of years was retired from CP&L. …

Rice also questioned the wisdom of building the plant, saying, “We in Buncombe County live in a fishbowl. … Why in the name of God do we want to pollute it more?” Then Rice, who faithfully attends and records Board of Commissioners meetings, added: “You say you’ve been working on it for two years; I’ve never heard anything about it. You ought to give real people six months.”

Asheville Downtown Commission member Julie Brandt said: “We’re asking you to look for another use for that property. Mr. Hunter just said this is virgin soil; it can be used for lots of other purposes, but I haven’t seen it offered for sale.” Pulling no punches, Brandt said: “For $300,000 in taxes you’re going to destroy our health? For $300,000 in taxes you’re going to let them emit 247 tons of nitrogen oxides, 60 tons of carbon monoxide, 65 tons of particulates, 18 tons of volatile organic compounds and 2 tons of sulfur? You should be ashamed.”

Only three people spoke in favor of the project. John Carroll, president of the Council of Independent Business Owners, presented a resolution in support of the plant on behalf of CIBO members. He called the project a win/win situation, increasing county tax revenues as well as providing power.

Contacted later, CIBO spokesperson Mike Plemmons told Xpress that the organization’s board approved the resolution. “Given the situation, we didn’t want to see brownouts. And brownouts always affect businesses first.”

Another CIBO member, attorney Albert Sneed, also spoke in favor of the proposal. Citing California’s brownouts in 2001 as a warning to the community, he said, “We need this to be sure that we don’t end up with rolling blackouts.”

But Jack Saye of the League of Women Voters pointed out: “In January and February of 2001, the California Energy Commission projected huge shortfalls. They funded a conservation-education program and reduced peak demand by 5,500 megawatts and cut overall use by more than 6 percent in one year.”

Beaverdam resident Elaine Lite suggested: “If you’re willing to give the land away for $1 per year, give it to someone who will build something that will enhance the community. Not only will we be subsidizing Progress Energy shareholders, we will pay the health cost. Contrary to what Mr. Carroll said … this is a lose/lose.” Lite argued for a conservation program, saying, “We should be sending compact-fluorescent light bulbs and educational materials home from school with every child.”

Architect Michael McDonough urged the commissioners to evaluate the project purely on its economic merits, setting aside both the environmental and health concerns that had been raised and the alternative energy sources that had been proposed. “Let’s do a cost/benefit analysis of the effect on the county,” said McDonough. “What’s the cost in lost property values adjacent to the plant? The fuel will be delivered in trucks; what’s the cost of a few accidents?”

Testimony continued for more than two hours, during which community activist Jim Barton turned in a letter of opposition signed by nearly 200 people. Chairman Ramsey closed the hearing at 6:52 p.m.

After a short break followed by a few further comments from Maxwell, Gantt said: “A lot of you aren’t going to be happy with me, but I’m voting for this. … We need to look in the mirror; we’ve all got to do better.” After the meeting, Gantt told Xpress: “That’s probably the most difficult decision I’ve ever made as a commissioner, but I didn’t see another solution that would provide the power we need.” Furthermore, he added, “If Progress Energy has pulled any monkey business with their figures, they’ll need to make the case, under oath, before the Utilities Commission.”

Ramsey, too, said he believes the plant is necessary, adding, “It’s you and me who use the power. We need to take responsibility for that.”

Commissioners unanimously approved the lease.

Quick finish

After that, the commissioners raced through the balance of the agenda, obviously eager to adjourn. Three public hearings whizzed by without any public comment, and the commissioners approved several items: amendments to the subdivision ordinance, closing out last year’s scattered-site rehabilitation grant program and approving a grant application for 2007. The state-funded grants pay for upgrades of private homes owned by low-income residents.

Advertisement of unpaid taxes and three new hires by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department were rapidly rubber-stamped, and two appointments were made: Hunter Goosmann (URTV board) and Kim MacQueen (Library board). The meeting adjourned at 7:33 p.m.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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