Commissioner opposes new coal plant

City Commissioner Mike Rundle says if Lawrence really wants to be known as an environmentally friendly community, it should start drumming up opposition to a major coal-fired power plant complex proposed for western Kansas.

Rundle hopes to get his fellow commissioners to submit an official letter to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment opposing a nearly $5 billion project by a Kansas-based cooperative to build three power plants near Holcomb.

“I think we really have the responsibility as a city to be fostering further development of alternative energy,” Rundle said, mentioning that Lawrence is part of the Sierra Club’s Cool Cities program, which includes a pledge to combat global warming. “Creating these power plants in western Kansas will work directly against creating new alternative energy.”

The plants, which are being proposed by a group led by Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp., must receive an air quality permit from KDHE before the project can begin construction. KDHE is holding hearings across the state on the permit application. It will hold a hearing at 6 p.m. Nov. 16 in Lawrence at the Malott Room in the Kansas Union.

Rundle would like commissioners to craft a letter and approve it so that it can be presented to state regulators at the Lawrence hearing. Whether that will happen is still an open question. The item has yet to be placed on a future City Commission agenda. Mayor Mike Amyx said he’s not sure he’s supportive of Lawrence becoming involved in the issue.

“My personal feeling is we probably ought to worry more about what is happening here at home,” Amyx said. “But we’ll have to see what Commissioner Rundle brings forward.”

Rundle, though, said much is at stake for the community and the rest of the state. Rundle said he was concerned that the plant would create serious environmental issues, such as increasing mercury emissions, which can cause health problems for pregnant women and young children.

The Sierra Club also has expressed opposition to the proposed plants for many of the same reasons.

But Steve Miller, a spokesman with Sunflower, said critics have a misunderstanding of the plant. Miller said the project actually will help spur wind energy projects because it involves building transmission lines to Colorado and Oklahoma. Miller said the biggest impediment to new wind-energy farms in western Kansas has been a lack of transmission lines to transmit the power to metro markets outside the state.

Miller said his company also is partnering with Kansas State University and the state’s Bioscience Authority to build a unique alternative energy center in Holcomb that will include a dairy and livestock processing facility, which will produce methane that can be used in adjacent ethanol and biodiesel plants.

On the environmental questions, Miller said the plants would be using the most updated air quality systems available. He said the three new plants were expected to produce no more mercury emissions than the existing plant in Holcomb. He said federal law also would require the existing plant to be retrofitted with the new air quality equipment.

Miller also said much of the debate has centered on carbon dioxide emissions and how that contributes to global warming. But Miller said current federal and state laws don’t regulate the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

“You’re almost Satan himself if you say carbon dioxide may not contribute to global warming as much as some people think,” MIller said, “but what we are saying is that if it is ever regulated, we will fully comply with any regulations that ever come forward. We’re doing everything by the law with this project.”

If approved, the plants are expected to come online in 2011, 2012 and 2013. They are expected to create about 2,000 construction jobs and an additional 140 new jobs to operate the plants.