A fight over a new coal plant in Mississippi that is heating up this week offers a powerful example of the high cost of coal, both for our wallets and our health. We say it again and again, but it bears repeating.  How long are we going to let the coal industry and their well-funded political friends make us pay for their facilities and pollution, while standing in the way of cleaner and cheaper energy, like wind power?

The latest dangerous political theater comes from Mississippi, where MS Power is attempting to build an experimental coal plant (IGCC) in Kemper County, Mississippi, along with a huge lignite coal mine. The nearly $3 billion plant is saddled with hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns and is several months behind schedule. Even worse, the plant will provide power for a small group of ratepayers (186,000) while hitting those ratepayers’ bills with increases of anywhere from 33 to 61 percent!

Sierra Club has been actively opposing this plant for more than three years and our activists and volunteers have won several victories along the way, in true David and Goliath fashion –but the fight’s far from over.

Here’s where it gets even worse: Mississippi has a law on the books allowing “construction while in progress” payments, which allows the utility to start charging ratepayers for the plant even before it’s up and running. So far, the state has denied these payments, but the state supreme court recently heard arguments on this and is considering a reversal.

More importantly, last week MS Power began pushing a bill in the state legislature that would allow MS Power to issue bonds for another billion dollars and recover those costs from ratepayers as well. The bill was introduced quietly in both chambers simultaneously and slipped through House and Senate committees before anyone even noticed. The bill passed the House and will be voted upon by the Senate this week – you can take action here to oppose this legislation.

You can help – Tell Mississippi’s legislature: No billion dollar bailouts for Mississippi Power’s dirty, unnecessary coal plant.

“It’s bad enough that MS Power wants to stick a small group of ratepayers with a $3 billion price tag for this boondoggle, but now they want to add another billion?” said Louie Miller, Mississippi Sierra Club state director.

“Under the MS Power scheme, they are unloading all the risk of this power plant off of their shareholders and onto ratepayers. This experimental plant is over budget by hundreds of millions of dollars and months behind schedule. Should our citizens pay through the nose for a dirty, unnecessary, and unbelievably expensive plant?”

And Mississippi ratepayers aren’t pleased with this plan, either. A recent poll of MS Power customers shows strong opposition towards rate hikes for the Kemper County Coal Plant. The poll also reveals that a majority of Mississippi Power customers believe the company and its shareholders should be responsible for the cost overruns at the plant, currently estimated at more than $350 million, and that Mississippi’s Public Service Commissioners should deny all rate increases to pay for the Kemper plant before it begins operation.

On top of that, Mississippi isn’t the only state coping with a hugely over-budget IGCC coal plant project. Edwardsport, Indiana, is home to another IGCC boondoggle – I wrote about that back in November.

These projects are being touted as the future of “clean coal” technology, yet they appear more to be the boondoggles of today. Meanwhile, the smart money is on truly clean energy like wind, which was the number one source of new power generation installed in the U.S. last year.

Thankfully we have some strong, committed activists in Mississippi to continue the fight against MS Power.

“We are working furiously to defeat this scandalous money grab by MS Power,” said Louie Miller.  “Our volunteers are at the Capitol; we’re calling; we’re emailing; we’re pulling out all the stops.  The tide is turning as our legislators are learning a simple fact:  a vote for this bill is a vote for a billion dollar tax on a small group of Mississippians.”

We can do better than dirty, over-budget coal plants that zap our wallets and our health. Mississippi, and the whole U.S., should be investing in clean energy to boost the economy and create jobs without harming our health or the environment.