Enviros Warn of 'Kemper Cliff'

Kemper County residents held a rally this spring to voice their opposition to Mississippi Power Co.'s building a coal-fired power plant in their backyard.

Kemper County residents held a rally this spring to voice their opposition to Mississippi Power Co.'s building a coal-fired power plant in their backyard. Photo by R.L. Nave.

The Mississippi Sierra Club is warning about a controversial power project sending electricity ratepayers over the "Kemper Cliff."

Drawing a comparison with the ongoing and potentially calamitous congressional budget deadlock, state Sierra Club Director Louie Miller believes going ahead with a 582-megawatt lignite-coal plant in Kemper County could also have dire consequences for customers of Mississippi Power Co.

"It's going to be the largest transfer of wealth in those 23 counties from the guy who's got the meter on the side of his house to the skyscraper in Atlanta," Miller said, referring to the headquarters of Southern Co., Mississippi Power's parent company.

Debate over the plant has heated up in recent weeks with the Sierra Club accusing one of the project's most high-profile backers, former Gov. Haley Barbour, of not telling the whole truth about his boosterism for the plant.

Specifically, the Sierra Club points to Southern Co.'s hiring of BGR Group, a lobbying firm founded in 1991 as Barbour, Griffith & Rogers.

Since 2000, Southern Co. has paid BGR Group approximately $2.6 million, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics.

The Sierra Club maintains that lignite is dirtier than other varieties of coal, which would harm the environment, and that the utility's ratepayers will bear the burden of repaying cost overruns and delays.

But Barbour and other supporters of the project say that Mississippi requires additional electricity and that mining and burning lignite, a soft coal that is abundant in the state, is the cheapest way to do it. They also point to the creation of thousands of jobs associated with constructing and running the plant as a boon to the state's economy.

In a Nov. 15 editorial that appeared in several Mississippi newspapers, without mentioning his firm's involvement, Barbour faulted the Sierra Club's legal wrangling for Kemper's setbacks.

The Sierra Club has filed several lawsuits to block the Kemper plant and numerous other coal-fired power plants around the country from going forward.

The dueling public relations campaigns took another turn when Montgomery, Ala.-based Project for Affordable Clean Energy put out criticized Brandon Presley, the most vocal opponent on the Mississippi Public Service Commission, for shilling for the Sierra Club.

"Given an opportunity to support this exciting project, Commissioner Brandon Presley chose instead to advance the radical environmental agenda of a group with no vision for our energy future other than to make electricity beyond affordable," PACE said, referring to the Sierra Club.

Presley shook off the charges that he's a Sierra Club puppet, saying that he's only concerned about the "kitchen-table economics" of the project.

Presley, a Democrat, also finds similarities between the Kemper County and the national economic debate in which Republicans have been reluctant to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

"There seems to be a lack of indignation and a lack of recognition that raising power rates hurts just as much as raising taxes," Presley said.

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