- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 6, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi utility regulators Tuesday delayed voting on an $82 million plan for Mississippi Power Co. to close coal ash disposal areas at a power plant in Gulfport.

The Public Service Commission delayed action on the plan until at least Dec. 15, questioning whether rules about closing coal ash dumps and ponds might change under incoming President Donald Trump.

Officials with Mississippi Power, a unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co., said Tuesday the company has already done about a third of the work to close a coal ash pond and coal ash landfill at Plant Watson in Gulfport. The company stopped burning coal there last year, switching two units to natural gas, and the company aims to finish the work in 2017.

Company attorney Ricky Cox says even if federal rules change, the company must do much of the work under existing state law.

“We think, inevitably, we’re going to have to close these facilities,” said Mark Loughman, the company’s director of environmental affairs.

Mississippi Power’s ratepayers would not be required to pay for the work immediately, although the company plans to ask for reimbursement in the future. The Public Service Commission allows the company to impose a surcharge for environmental work on bills, but limits the amount it can increase by each year. Right now, as the company tries to pay off a $660 million project at Plant Daniel in Escatawpa to remove pollution from coal exhaust, Mississippi Power has deferred recovering the Watson work into the future.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency counts at least four coal ash landfills in Mississippi. EPA has rated Watson’s pond and landfill a “significant hazard” to nearby communities if they fail. The plant adjoins coastal waters including the Biloxi River and Big Lake.

Regulators began focusing on coal ash ponds after a dike collapsed in 2008 at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plant in Kingston, Tennessee, causing the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history, polluting rivers and flowing over 300 acres. Then, in 2014, 39,000 tons leaked from a Duke Energy holding pond in Eden, North Carolina, polluting the Dan River.

The company has started work hoping to avoid the expense of some monitoring requirements, but after a court case, the EPA imposed the same requirements on all projects. Mississippi Power has said it would absorb the cost of 30 years of monitoring through $2.4 million in savings from the current project budget.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/Jeff%20Amy .


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