Put polluting power plant choice to a vote, group says
Rob Brinkman
February 2006

Do you want another coal power plant? If not please read on, because it appears a second coal power plant will be coming to our community. As you may already be aware, Gainesville has already had a coal-powered plant in operation for approximately 25 years now. Alachua County has a very high rate of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, ailments which have historically been attributable to air pollution.

About one year ago, Citizens for Affordable and Renewable Energy (CARE) was created to address citizen concerns about GRU's proposed second coal powered plant. CARE also asked the Gainesville City Commission to hire independent experts to evaluate other options for meeting our future energy needs. For most of the year, I was hopeful that other alternatives would be considered; however, when the City hired ICF Associates, "Incompetent Coal Flacks" as I now prefer to call them, I began to see more coal in our community's future.

CARE believes that everyone deserves a voice in the economic and environmental health of Gainesville. Many of us have consistently attended City Commission meetings on the power plant proposal; unfortunately, it appears that GRU has far more influence on many Commissioners than do the people who elected them.

Article one, section one, of the Florida constitution states: "All political power is inherent in the people." CARE believes that the citizens of Gainesville, who in fact, own GRU, should vote in a referendum on a coal power plant. The Gainesville City Charter can only be amended by a referendum vote. While the City Commission can and has placed amendments on the ballot, they must have the support of a majority of those voting in an election. CARE is gathering petitions to place the following amendment to the Gainesville Charter on the ballot:

Referendum required on proposals for additional coal or petroleum coke fueled power plants:
To protect the health of the community, particularly of children and seniors, who are most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, the City of Gainesville shall not spend, use or seek any funds for planning or constructing additional coal or petroleum coke fueled power plants, unless and until a specific proposal has been approved by referendum of the city electorate.

This will be a challenging task. We must collect signatures from 10% of the registered voters in order to have this amendment placed on the ballot. Since, in some elections, turnout has been less than 10%, this may be hardest part. Many commissioners do not welcome citizen initiated charter amendments, and the City of Gainesville can, and likely will, spend taxpayer funds to inform citizens concerning issues on the ballot.

CARE needs volunteers to collect signatures, particularly during the upcoming city elections, and at other events that will draw large numbers of Gainesville residents. Contributions will also be needed to print the petition forms, pay the required $0.10 fee per signature to validate them, as well as produce campaign brochures, signs and bumper stickers.

I cannot emphasize enough how important this issue is to our future. This is a $500 million construction project, the largest public works project ever in this area. Furthermore, this additional plant will likely increase, not decrease, our electric rates, as it did when GRU built the first coal plant 25 years ago and rates doubled.

Recently, the bond rating agency Standard & Poor's downgraded GRU from a stable to a negative outlook, in part because of the already high debt service compared to revenue ratio GRU has and the need to borrow a half billion dollars to build a new plant. The existing GRU bonded debt together with the proposed coal plant project will bring GRU's total debt to one billion dollars! If coal prices continue to rise, as they have in the last few years, rates will go higher still. If the next administration finally enacts some form of carbon emissions penalties we are in deep trouble. In short, a coal plant that is supposed to be the least-cost option could turn out to be very expensive in the future.

But there are costs other than financial: Alachua County's asthma rate has recently been as high as twice the state average. While GRU offers assurances that the new plant will emit less pollution, that is not true for particulate matter (PM), also known as soot.

When I first became interested in this issue, I thought that soot primarily impacts the lungs; in fact, the largest impact from soot is increased incidence of heart attacks and strokes. This very fine, normally invisible, soot not only goes deep into our lungs, it enters the blood stream.

Coal also contains mercury, a well-known toxin. While GRU is promising lower mercury emissions, the fact is that the best available control technology for mercury remains to simply not burn coal. Petroleum coke, or petcoke, is a byproduct of oil refining and is laden with various toxic heavy metals. It also is generally high in sulfur and causes high levels of PM emissions. Because it has many of the same physical properties and produces many of the same emissions, the term coal is used to refer to both petcoke and coal.

There is also the concern of planetary health. As a species we must stop pouring fossil carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Not only is the climate continuing to change, the rate of increase in CO2 is also growing. Recently James Hansen of the Goddard Space Flight Institute warned that humanity is rushing towards an irreversible tipping point after which there will be no possibility of stopping catastrophic global warming. If GRU's proposed plant and others like it are built, the fate of the entire planet will be sealed.

For all the reasons above and many more, we must get this charter amendment on the ballot and enacted. It will prevent GRU from spending any further money on a coal plant unless we citizens, the owners of GRU, agree. This is the most important issue to have ever faced our community. Our future hangs in the balance; please get involved!

The author can be reached at 337-1757 or robbrinkman@cox.net.

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