Dozens testify on controversial coal-fired power plants

Another public session scheduled tonight at KU

About 80 people from across the state testified during a public hearing that lasted until late Thursday night in the Kansas Union on a Kansas-based cooperative’s plan to build three coal-fired power plants near Holcomb.

The plants, proposed by a group led by Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp., must receive an air quality permit from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment before beginning construction.

The hearing turned into an hourslong debate, and another session is planned for this evening. Those who spoke against the plan said it would contribute to global warming, increase mercury emissions, deplete water resources and hinder the opportunity for Kansas to look toward wind-generated energy.

“We understand and believe that this is going to affect our health. We believe that this is going to cause disease and is going to cause death on a large scale,” said Reid Nelson, a Lawrence resident and Topeka lawyer, who cited the Environmental Protection Agency’s push to make its emission regulations stricter.

Economic boon

Nearly all western Kansas residents who spoke, including Sunflower investors, executives and local government officials of the Garden City area, said the project would be an economic boon to the area. It would also help build needed transmission lines, use technology for the most updated air quality systems available and mitigate water consumption, they said.

“We want the opportunity to enjoy the economics that northeast Kansas has had,” said Earl Watkins, Sunflower’s president and chief executive officer. “I would simply ask that because we are in compliance that you not let the ‘haves’ deny the ‘have-nots’ the same joys of life because of what northeast Kansas has had for the last 30 years.”

Watkins said the proximity to 15 coal-fired plants has contributed greatly to the economic situation in eastern Kansas.

But many eastern Kansas residents, including state Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, condemned the plans and said they would create devastating pollution effects on public health. The KDHE has held two other public hearings, but the one in Lawrence was by far the most attended, officials said. The KDHE is also accepting written testimony until Nov. 30.

Several asked for approval Thursday night, but a majority seemed to not support adding the three plants.

“The economic benefits are very localized, and the environmental impacts are spread, one could argue, globally,” said Charles Benjamin, of Lawrence, an attorney and lobbyist for the Sierra Club.

Benjamin and Nelson also participated in a news conference before the hearing and voiced their opposition with others, saying the proposal would be the largest new source of carbon dioxide in the nation and put Kansas on the map as contributing to global warming.

But Sunflower supporters said regulations and steps would produce no more mercury emissions than the current coal-fired plant in Holcomb. Current federal and state laws do not regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants, but the company has proven to be a good environmental steward, supporters said.

Job creation

The plants are expected to create about 2,000 construction jobs and 140 new jobs for operation, and Sunflower has agreed to build an alternative energy center in Holcomb. They will also add to the transmission lines in that part of the state to help spur wind energy and other projects, Watkins and others said.

But those who testified against the plant said emission standards were not strict enough and were uncomfortable adding coal-fired plants instead of wind-energy generators.

“If built, these plants will be polluting our air and pulling water from our aquifer for the next 50 to 75 years,” said Raymond Red Corn, a Kansas University student and regional director of 2020 Vision.

KDHE officials decided to add a session of the hearing from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. today in the Kansas Union Ballroom.

More than 315 people had signed in Thursday night. The scene became tense when it began at 6 p.m. The building’s staff members and KU Public Safety officers made dozens of people standing in the Malott Room, which has a capacity of 100 people, move into the next meeting room and listen via audio speakers.

“This meeting is a joke,” one person shouted while leaving the room.

Anyone who signed up to speak was allowed to speak for three minutes, and KDHE officials said the Malott Room was the largest space available because of other events in the union Thursday night.