White Bluff Generating Plant
The White Bluff Generating Plant is a coal-fired electrical energy generating plant located near Redfield (Jefferson County) and operated by Entergy Arkansas. It was the first coal-fired plant constructed in Arkansas and one of four in operation.
Until the early 1970s, electricity, gasoline, and natural gas had been cheap and apparently in plentiful supply in the United States, but the first Arab oil embargo quickly drove energy prices up sharply, causing immediate gas and oil shortages. Energy suppliers, including electric utilities, had already begun to plan for the use of alternative fuel sources. For example, Arkansas Power and Light (AP&L—now Entergy Arkansas) had begun construction of two large nuclear fuel generators near Russellville (Pope County). At this point, however, there were no coal-fired electrical power plants in the southwestern United States, in part because coal burning was considered by many to have considerably higher risks of adverse environmental impact than the traditional boiler fuels (oil, natural gas) that had been plentiful in the past. Faced with the developing energy crisis, state leaders and electrical utility officials met and agreed that Arkansas had to establish a proper and credible format and forum in which the complex issues involved in future electrical generation and environmental protection planning would be thoroughly reviewed and determined.
Accordingly, the Arkansas General Assembly adopted amendments to state public utility regulation, requiring for the first time that utilities demonstrate the environmental compatibility of any new major facilities, including power plants and transmission lines. Public utilities would thereafter have to obtain a certificate of environmental compatibility and public need from the Arkansas Public Service Commission (PSC) under the Utility Facility Environmental Protection Act. Thereafter, on August 17, 1973, AP&L, then a subsidiary of Middle South Utilities (MSU), applied to the PSC to build and operate a four-unit, 3,200-megawatt coal-burning generating plant, the White Bluff Generating Plant, on the west bank of the Arkansas River in Redfield, twenty-four miles south of Little Rock (Pulaski County) and seventeen miles north of Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). Each 800 megawatt unit would have a 750-foot smoke stack, called a cooling tower, for the dispersion of plant emissions. Coal would be delivered to the plant by train from strip mines in Wyoming. If built as proposed, it would have been the largest coal-fired generating plant in the world. The plant would operate in coordination with the other generating plants within the MSU system, which included other facilities in Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana and Mississippi.
AP&L’s proposal immediately generated controversy, with economic development advocates pitted against those concerned with the environmental impact of such a large coal-burning plant. Fifteen parties intervened in AP&L’s PSC application to build and operate White Bluff. The principal parties opposing the original proposal were the Arkansas Department of Pollution Control and Ecology (ADPCE, now the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality), Arkansas Department of Planning (ADP), Arkansas Department of Health (ADH), Ecology Center of Arkansas, and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN); the ADP and ADH were represented by the Arkansas State Attorney General’s Office. The Arkansas Department of Industrial Development supported the application.
The major challengers to the White Bluff proposal undertook various wide-ranging studies of AP&L’s proposal, particularly the ADPCE and the ADP, in addition to the staff of the PSC. These parties were critical of AP&L’s environmental impact statement, arguing that more detailed information would be needed to analyze the proposal properly. As a result, AP&L was ordered to supplement the data it had initially presented. Questions remained about the need for such a significant increase in AP&L’s total generating capacity. AP&L would soon be operating two nuclear generating plants in Arkansas (Arkansas Nuclear One), adding 1,800 megawatts of power, while its peak power demand in Arkansas during the summer of 1973 had been only 2,744 megawatts. AP&L responded that it had been dependent for some time on being able to buy electricity from the MSU power grid, which had historically consisted of gas- and oil-fired generation. The company argued that there was an increasing need to diversify its fuel sources, with coal being the best choice for much of its future power generation.
After months of preliminary debate and technical analysis, the core issues to be presented to, and decided by, the PSC were the following: 1) the need for a four-unit power plant of such scope; 2) the extent of the air pollution emissions from operation of the facility; 3) the alleged need for sulfur dioxide removal equipment (called “scrubbers”) to reduce air pollution; and 4) whether viable alternatives to the AP&L proposal existed.
The public hearing began before the PSC in June 1974. At that point, AP&L suggested it would modify its plant design by raising the height of its exhaust stacks to 1,000 feet, with each stack serving two power units. At the same time, testimony from various witnesses challenged AP&L’s ability to control plant emissions under certain adverse environmental circumstances and thus comply with Arkansas’s short-term sulfur dioxide emission standard. Contrary to the testimony of AP&L’s main witness on this issue, experts for the ADPCE and the ADP alleged that the plant emissions would significantly exceed the level predicted by the company. Several of the intervening parties also questioned the need for all four of the generating units within the timeframe suggested by AP&L. The PSC hearing adjourned on July 24, 1974.
On October 11, 1974, the PSC issued its final order and concluded that AP&L had shown a need for only two generating units during its suggested timeframe. The commission also approved the construction of only one 1,000-foot stack serving the two units, but also decided that there was insufficient proof at that time for the addition of sulfur dioxide scrubbers in order for AP&L to meet the Arkansas ambient air pollution control standard. The consensus among the Arkansas state agencies that actively participated in this case was that the PSC had reached a reasonable and balanced decision in this precedent-setting case.
The commission’s decision necessitated that AP&L undertake additional design work before meaningful construction began on the plant in 1975 (the property had been purchased by AP&L in the early 1970s). The PSC’s order also required the plant design to include a way to retrofit scrubbers at some future date, if necessary. Brown and Root Construction Company was the general construction contractor for the facility. AP&L and MSU originally intended to complete construction on the first White Bluff unit in 1978, but for various reasons, construction of the first unit was not completed until 1980, and the second unit did not begin commercial generation until 1981. In August 2015, in response to a federal Environmental Protection Agency plan to reduce pollution, Entergy Arkansas proposed to close the White Bluff plant by 2028 rather than install the expensive scrubbers. In 2018, the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association sued Entergy for violation of the Clean Air Act, and later that year, Entergy announced that the White Bluff plant would cease burning coal by 2028. A settlement announced in 2021 also stipulated that Entergy would begin using low-sulfur coal at both White Bluff and the Independence Steam Electric Station by June 30, 2021.
For additional information:
Arkansas Public Service Commission Docket 73-048-U. Arkansas Public Service Commission. http://www.apscservices.info/efilings/docket_search_results.asp?casenumber=73-048-U (accessed November 15, 2021).
Eley, Ashton. “In Settlement, Power Plants to Shut by ’30.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 12, 2021, pp. 1B, 5B.
Griffee, Carol. “Air Chief Tells PSC He’d Like AP&L To Build 2 Units.” Arkansas Gazette, July 24, 1974, p. 4A.
———. “Ecology Leaders Attack Findings.” Arkansas Gazette, June 19, 1974, pp. 1A, 2A.
———. “Error Found in Estimate of AP&L Plant Pollution.” Arkansas Gazette, May 26, 1974, pp. 1A, 2A.
———. “He Did Deviate From Formula, AP&L Consultant Tells Hearing.” Arkansas Gazette, June 20, 1974, pp. 1A, 3A.
Kleihauer, Susan. “Environmentalists Like PSC Ruling.” Arkansas Democrat, October 12, 1974, pp. 1A, 14A.
Frederic L. Frawley
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