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Local power companies big on coal, just not so much in Florida

At first glance, Tampa Bay's two dominant power companies seem eager to minimize if not end their reliance on messy coal as a source of fuel to generate electricity in Florida.

Progress Energy wants to shut down coal-fired power plants in Citrus County if it gets a final okay to operate new nuclear power plants in nearby Levy County.

TECO Energy, parent of Tampa Electric, is slowly switching from coal-fired power plants to those fueled by less-polluting natural gas. And it has even agreed to buy power from a solar panel farm that's supposed to be built in Polk County.

What makes coal such a pariah in Florida? Political leaders who want little to do with it. A desire to keep air pollution in check. A lack of coal culture and, of course, a state economy with no coal mining jobs to lose.

But let's switch from the narrow telephoto lens to a wide angle. Outside of Florida, TECO and Progress Energy are clearly bigger fans of coal — and in some cases, bigger coal polluters.

Tampa-based TECO owns TECO Coal, which operates coal mines in Kentucky and Virginia. TECO recently helped back public relations campaigns gearing up to counter environmental activists with a more public, positive spin on coal mining.

One such campaign, backed by TECO and several other Kentucky coal operators, is called Coal Mining Our Future. On Labor Day, it reportedly chartered 28 buses to take thousands of people from eastern Kentucky to a coal rally in Holden, W.Va., where rock 'n' roll guitarist Ted Nugent, known for his conservative views and pro-gun stance, performed.

The campaign includes a "Coal for Kids" charity to provide children with clothing, and a "Coal Gear" Web site selling caps, bumper stickers and T-shirts proclaiming "Coal Keeps the Lights On" and other pro-coal phrases.

The group, emphasizing area jobs, may be gaining some momentum in a struggling economy. It also opposes pending "cap and trade" provisions restricting carbon emissions that are part of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.

A companion, so-called grass roots group known as "FACES of Coal" — short for Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security — calls itself "an alliance of people from all walks of life" who advocate coal. But the group's origin has been tracked not to Appalachia but to a K Street public relations firm in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Progress Energy recently found itself with a weak grade and a pollution threat. Federal regulators last month released their first reports on the conditions of "high-hazard" ash ponds at coal plants nationwide. In North Carolina, Progress Energy's Asheville Power Station pond was the only one of the first 17 assessed to be rated in poor condition. (PDF)

Coal ash is the residue left after coal is burned in power plants. It is stored as sludge in ponds.

The assessment mentioned that a failure of Progress Energy's ash pond dam would likely result in at least one death and major property damage.

Call it the two faces of our power companies. Coal's falling off their radar screen in Florida, but it's still big news in Appalachia.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Progress Energy's coal ash pond was rated "poor" by the Environmetal Protection Agenc,y but that is not the EPA's lowest rating of "unsatisfactory." Also, the EPA report accurately referenced but did not independently determine that a failure in the coal ash pond could result in a death and property damage. A Robert Trigaux column on power companies and coal was incorrect on these matters.

Local power companies big on coal, just not so much in Florida 10/05/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 6, 2009 1:31pm]

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