August 19, 2014
Six years of legal challenges and grassroots pressure from the Sierra Club against the Kemper coal plant have resulted in a landmark legal settlement that will bring $15 million in energy efficiency and clean energy investments to Mississippi. The agreement between the Sierra Club and Mississippi Power will also make it easier for homeowners in the state to install solar power, and will require power plants in Gulfport, Mississippi, and Greene County, Alabama, to stop burning coal over the next 20 months.
In exchange for these and other concessions, the Sierra Club has agreed to drop its legal challenges of the now-nearly-completed Kemper coal plant. The Club's legal challenges and grassroots pressure led state regulators to block Mississippi Power from billing its customers for cost overruns, which have now soared to $5.6 billion -- more than twice the original projected cost of building the plant.
"With this agreement, we are building a future where dirty, expensive, and unnecessary projects like Kemper coal plants will be things of the past," says Louie Miller, below, state director of the Mississippi Sierra Club and Kemper's leading opponent over the last six years. "This agreement represents a quantum leap forward for Mississippians by creating a clear path for residents to install solar on their homes, make their own clean energy choices, and avoid huge rate hikes for unnecessary coal plants."
While Sierra Club attorneys repeatedly challenged Kemper in court, local volunteers and staff kept up the grassroots pressure in the court of public opinion, holding rallies, tabling events, protests, town hall meetings, and press conferences all along the Gulf Coast. The Club also took out giant billboards at three key junctures during the campaign.
"The legal effort and grassroots activism went hand-in-hand," Miller says. "We couldn't have accomplished what we did without both."
Linda St. Martin, below, a Sierra Club activist and volunteer leader with Mississippians for Affordable Energy who died this May, helped Miller to build a grassroots coalition of Gulf Coast residents opposed to the plant and the rate hikes the Mississippi Public Service Commission (PSC) was attempting to foist on ratepayers.
"Linda worked closely with Louie to fill buses with people who traveled from the Gulf Coast to Jackson to testify at PSC hearings," says Jenna Garland of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "They probably chartered buses to Jackson nearly a dozen times."
"Jackson is far removed from Mississippi Power's service area in the southern part of the state, so it was easy for the PSC to ignore customers hit hard by Kemper rate hikes," Garland says. "One married couple, commercial fishers, made the trip every time, and told the PSC how the rate hikes would hamper the Gulf Coast's economic recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Getting folks like this to Jackson forced the commission to face the people who were being affected."
"Linda was the heart and soul of our work in coastal Mississippi," Miller says. "We are all saddened that she was unable to see how years of fighting the Kemper plant has resulted in this agreement, but we honor her work that will put her beloved Mississippi on the path to a clean energy economy, cleaner, air, and support for those hardest hit by Kemper's costs."
Part of the settlement with Mississippi Power will provide $2 million to protect habitat for the endangered gopher frog, and the Sierra Club will work to name this new preserve in honor of St. Martin.
The Sierra Club challenged the Kemper plant from its inception, building an unprecedented coalition of Mississippi Power customers in central and southern Mississippi, homeowners and Kemper County residents, low-income and environmental justice advocates. The Club's expert witnesses accurately predicted the cost overruns and delays that have plagued the plant from the get-go. Mississippi attorney Robert Wiygul and the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program staff successfully challenged the plant's first construction permit, winning a unanimous decision from the Mississippi Supreme Court. Below, Club activists and other Gulf Coast residents outside the Supreme Court's chambers in Jackson.
After that ruling, the Public Service Commission rushed to issue a new permit to allow Mississippi Power to continue construction work on the plant, but the Club's lawyers challenged that permit as well, arguing that the utility was passing on rate increases to its customers to cover cost overruns.
Ultimately the Club won concessions in the August 4, 2014, settlement that include phasing out coal at the Gulfport and Greene County power plants, securing a binding commitment from Mississippi Power not to oppose measures to make solar more affordable for homeowners, and requiring the company to strengthen flood protections adjacent to the Kemper plant that will help keep toxic pollution out of groundwater and local waterways.
The agreement will reduce air and water pollution and significantly improve air quality in the region, leading to fewer asthma attacks in children, fewer emergency room visits, and improved quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people. It will also provide millions of dollars to assist low-income Mississippi Power customers in making their home more energy-efficient.
Due to the increasing cost of coal and rapidly declining cost of clean energy, Kemper -- the only new coal plant to break ground during the Obama administration -- is likely to be the last coal-fired power plant built in the U.S.