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Dirty Business takes to the road in Kansas   
By Peter Bull. Tue, Aug 31, 2010

This August DIRTY BUSINESS joined the debate over coal-fired electricity in Kansas. We held two screenings timed to coincide with a public comment and hearing process opened by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) about expansion of the Holcomb Station power plant in the western part of the state. Sunflower Electric Power Corporation has proposed to expand its existing 360 megawatt (MW) coal plant, built in 1983, to 895 MW, enough to meet the power needs of 448,000 households.

Proponents of Sunflower’s expansion cite the need to update the old, existing plant and to meet the growing load requirement in Kansas and the region.

Opponents argue that Kansas has the nation’s second-best wind resource and that, in the long run, renewable energy and increased energy efficiency can meet energy requirements at lower cost to ratepayers and to the environment. Moreover, local critics point out that only about 200 MW of the expanded plant’s power would remain in Kansas – the rest would be exported to electric cooperatives in Colorado and Texas.

The screenings took place on August 9th in Lawrence, Kan. and August 11th in Wichita and were organized by Working Films. The Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, the Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy (GPACE) and Films for Action of Lawrence helped draw the audience.

“We saw a lot of new faces in the crowd, especially in Lawrence,” said Stephanie Cole of Sierra Club Kansas. “Sometimes we feel like we’re preaching to the choir, but we were thrilled that the film brought out these new people who are interested in the issues.”

Tim Hjersted of Films for Action did a great job promoting the screening in Lawrence and some 100 people turned out. Many stayed for a Q & A session afterwards with Stephanie and Scott Allegrucci of GPACE, in which they discussed the Sunflower coal plant situation and how folks could participate in the permitting process.

The Wichita screening had a good turnout on short notice, as well. Stephanie Cole: “People I spoke with liked that the film looked at the entire lifecycle of coal vs. only covering one aspect of coal, such as mining. One person also commented to me that it was encouraging to see folks outside of Kansas who are also opposing coal plants. I had requests from folks for a copy of the film. People are interested in showing the film to community groups in Wichita, as well as hosting house parties.”

Pete Ferrell of Energy for Generations (E4G), a rancher and operator of the Elk River Wind Project who appears in DIRTY BUSINESS, was on hand for a Q & A session following the Wichita screening. Pete said that, “Most of the people I talked to who saw the film reacted much the same way Jeff Goodell did when he first saw an open-pit coal mine: incredulous. The impact is a bit overwhelming. ‘Do we still depend on a filthy 19th century energy source in the 21st century?’”

According to a Sierra Club Kansas report, Holcomb will burn 4,712,500 tons of Wyoming coal per year, sending upwards of $100 Million to Wyoming mines and railroads. However, as described in the permit application, emissions from the expanded Holcomb facility – including mercury and nitrogen oxide, a precursor to ozone - would be far greater than emissions from many coal-fired plants today.

Local press reported that about the same number of people who saw DIRTY BUSINESS turned out for a public comment meeting held in Garden City, near the site of the Holcomb coal plant, the afternoon of August 9th. Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) officials heard from both sides as they considered whether to approve the electric company's air quality construction permit.

Proponents of the plant expansion, like Seward County Commissioner Jim Rice, said the coal plant would generate jobs and an export economy. (Sunflower claims that 1,900 would be employed for construction and 70 would be hired as full-time employees.) "How I look at the coal plant is it is a new wealth industry," Rice told the Southwest Times. “The way I look at that is it would bring money in from out-of-state and an export of electricity.”

Opponents were mainly concerned about the deterioration of air quality that would inevitably result from the new facility. Others, like James Cottrell, worried about the further depletion of ground water resources in Western Kansas, and he told the officials that approving the plant would be a step back in the development of alternative energy sources.

"Global warming is real," Cottrell said. "We cannot continue making decisions on our energy future without taking global warming into account. Not if we want to preserve our planet for future generations. All of us share a responsibility for limiting CO2 emissions. We can't put this off until tomorrow because tomorrow has already come."

Other KDHE-sponsored public meetings were held in Salina and Overland Park before the public comment period ended August 15th. Video of comments by proponents and opponents alike can be viewed at the Kansas WatchDog site.