Cecil community fights to block power plant

Activists: Residents employ resourcefulness in their opposition to a Va. utility company's plans to be their neighbor.

July 06, 2000|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

ROCK SPRINGS - Roland J. Willard and Edward L. Newell don't look the part of rabble-rousing radicals, but they have found themselves in that unaccustomed role over the past year.

Willard, a soft-spoken retired postmaster who runs a roadside greenhouse, and Newell, an environmental engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground, are spearheading a fight over a Virginia company's plans to build an electric power plant in Cecil County.

They are convinced - despite the company's assurances to the contrary - that the $400 million, natural gas-fired plant will be a noisy, polluting eyesore that will shatter the tranquility of their rural community.

As the battle nears its end, both say it appears likely that the plant will be built on a farm field across a two-lane road from Willard's nursery and nearby home, over the objections of many who live in the area.

But opponents remain hopeful that regulatory authorities will force Old Dominion Electric Cooperative and its Houston-based partner, Reliant Energy Corp., to alter their plans to limit the plant's environmental impact.

The battle has been fiercely fought before state regulators, who are expected to decide before year's end whether the plant will be built and, if so, under what conditions. The proposal has pitted a small residents' group against big power companies with many resources and allies.

"It's hard to fight big business," said Willard, who heads the Rock Springs Community Alliance, the group he organized to oppose the plant. "It's very time-consuming. You're fighting politicians and multimillion-dollar corporations with a grass-roots organization that has limited funds."

Added Newell, "Most of the people involved in this are just farm people, working people" who are not accustomed to speaking out at public hearings or waging a high-stakes political fight.

Yet, the novice activists brought in experts on water resources, noise standards and air pollution and managed to wage a sophisticated fight.

They did so even as the state, the Cecil County business community and the county commissioners lined up in support of the project.

Those who favor the project say that the power plant would be a clean-burning facility that would operate only during periods of peak demand for energy, no more than a quarter of the year.

Supporters also say the plant would place few demands on the county for services while generating more than $1.5 million in tax revenue a year for a poor county with little industry.

But Willard, Newell and their neighbors say they are appalled at what they see as a sellout of the community's best attribute, the quality of life it affords the people who live here.

The two men have been involved at every step as Maryland's Public Service Commission, through a hearing examiner, has gathered testimony on the social and environmental impact of the project.

The state Department of Natural Resources Power Plant Research Program has recommended that it be approved, which outraged Willard and Newell.

They say the agency is serving as a "rubber stamp." If the plant is to be built, they argue, more than the minimum should be done to control air pollution, limit noise and protect the area's water supply.

"They don't want to do anything more than they have to," said Newell. "These guys are looking to do it on the cheap, and the state's caving in by trying to accommodate them."

Diane H. Brown, who is overseeing the plant's licensing for the Natural Resources Department, said the idea that her agency is rubber-stamping the proposal is "absurd."

DNR has independently reviewed the companies' plans, she said, recommending that approval be contingent on 73 conditions. In several areas, she said, the companies are being asked to go beyond the minimum requirements of state law.

Representatives of Old Dominion say they feel the company is doing everything it reasonably can to satisfy residents' concerns while maintaining the project's economic viability.

"I firmly believe that at the end of the day, if the facility is built and operated as we propose, there will be minimal impact to the community," said William H. Crouch, the company's engineering director.

"We've tried our best to address the concerns where they could be accommodated," he said. "We felt like the state's review, and their independent analysis confirmed our findings with regard to the viability of this site."

But Willard and Newell say their experts believe more can be done, including requiring that the plant be outfitted with equipment to cut pollution.

The group brought in its own experts after discovering that was the only way they could fully participate as intervenors in the licensing process.

John P. Downs, an Elkton attorney who volunteered to help the opponents, said power company representatives seemed shocked that the group was able to marshal its own technical advisers to challenge those hired by the companies and the state.

"Our experts have been at least as good as theirs," Downs said.

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