Study ranks Wilsonville plant worst polluter in United States

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 10, 2002

A national research group in a report labeled the E.C. Gaston Steam Plant, located in Wilsonville and owned by Alabama Power Company, as one of the worst polluters in the nation when it comes to air emissions.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, (PIRG) a coalition of state-based health activism groups, held a press conference in Birmingham last week where they announced the findings of a national study concerning pollution changes from 1995 to 2000.

In the report, the Wilsonville plant was ranked No. 1 in the nation for its increase in emissions of sulfur dioxide, a chemical that causes fine particle soot.

Specifically the report said, &uot;The E.C. Gaston Plant increased its SO2 emissions by 62,000 tons per year, a bigger jump than any other plant in the nation.&uot;

The report also listed the plant as No. 2 for increases in emissions of nitrogen oxide, considered to be a major cause of ozone problems, and No. 3 for increases in emissions of carbon dioxide.

A spokesperson for Alabama Power did not disagree with the specific numbers but indicated they were used in a misleading way.

&uot;PIRG used selective dates to paint a misleading picture,&uot; said Michael Sznajderman of Alabama Power.

&uot;The problem with the report is they picked a couple of years to paint us in the worst light, 1995 and 2000. They grabbed those two years and said this is a trend.&uot;

He said 1995, when emissions of sulfur dioxide were lower than normal at 55,738 tons, was not an accurate year for the company.

Sznajderman said the plant decreased production of power that year because of the addition of another plant in Alabama.

Had PIRG chosen the more accurate emission level of more than 115,000 in 1994 and compared it to 2000, the increase would not have appeared as great, he said.

Also, he said, the company switched to a lower sulfur content and cleaner burning coal for a time during that period.

The number in 2000, 117,856 tons of sulfur dioxide, is more comparable to the 12-year trend from 1990 to 2002, he said.

He said in 1990 the emission level was 156,528 tons which indicates the Wilsonville plant was actually decreasing emissions during those years while increasing power output.

&uot;We try to look more long term than to paint a dramatic picture,&uot; Sznajderman said. &uot;Emissions are substantially less now than 12 years ago, and at the same time we boosted electricity.&uot;

Sznajderman said Alabama Power continues to make progress statewide reducing emissions for all of its plants.

He said the company is also planning to spend $1.6 billion in the next 10 years to decrease emissions by using better equipment.

He said the report did not properly take into account the power produced per hour in Shelby County, the Birmingham metro area and Alabama.

&uot;The report totally neglected this,&uot; he said. &uot;We are producing a lot more energy cleaner using less sulfur coal.&uot;

Pam Lewis, a spokesperson for the American Lung Association’s office in Homewood, pointed to the fact that Shelby and Jefferson counties have been in violation of federal ozone limits

for a number of years.

Lewis said people should take the report seriously, noting the American Lung Association has endorsed it.

&uot;We need to support the outcome of this research for Alabama. It stresses the need for individuals to increase and take more action to ensure they have clean air to breathe,&uot; she said.

Lewis said national regulations which only require companies to stay under a cap number for emissions makes matters worse.

&uot;This is a bad situation for Shelby County. It’s going to be up to (Shelby County residents) to make this a priority for their lawmakers. Asthma instances are increasing at epidemic levels. We need to look at all the sources including pollution.&uot;

Wilsonville Mayor James Morris said he is not concerned by the study’s findings.

&uot;I love E.C. Gaston,&uot; Morris said. &uot;It’s the best thing that has ever happened to the town of Wilsonville. They’ve been the best neighbors and we’re proud to have them.&uot;

Because of the plant’s presence in Wilsonville, Morris said Alabama Power has contributed to a number of projects in the town.

Most recently, the company donated money to help build a new ballpark partially funded through a grant from the Shelby County Commission, Morris said