The push for a new coal-fired power plant in western Kansas has ignited a fierce debate about energy policy in Kansas. Now a similar proposal in the 805-person town of Norborne, Missouri, is setting the stage for a fossil-fuel showdown in the Show-Me State.
Last month, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources issued preliminary approval for a new coal-fired power plant in the small city 60 miles northeast of Kansas City. The project would be built by Associated Electric Cooperative Inc., a Springfield-based company that provides power to 56 local and regional cooperatives in Missouri, Iowa and Oklahoma. The new plant would be 780 megawatts -- about half the size of the Sunflower Electric Power Corporation proposed plant, which was rejected by Kansas officials last month. On Tuesday, supporters and opponents packed a lively public hearing that pushed the capacity of the city’s community center.
At 5:30 p.m., AECI’s trailer was still lighted up, and a half-dozen company officials were huddled around a table framed by the front window. Just down the street, a homemade sign warning, “Dirty Coal: Do you want to be downwind?” hung from a chain-link fence outside a modest white home. Across the road, a banner inscribed “Concerned Citizens of Carroll County” stood in front of the entrance to the Home Savings and Loan of Norborne. In the basement, dozens of citizens from surrounding towns and as far away as St. Louis put on black-and-white T-shirts denouncing coal-fired power and lined up with placards with messages such as “Don’t turn Missouri into Bejing.”
Melissa Hope, development director for the Missouri Sierra Club, outlined the hazards of the proposed plant. The coal-fired boiler would belch thousands of tons of pollutants that add to ozone problems. The facility would eject nearly 7 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year — the same global-warming effect as adding 1.2 million cars to Missouri roads. Moreover, Missouri is ranked 46th in the nation when it comes to energy efficiency, so simple conservation efforts could eliminate the need for a new plant altogether.
With a handful of police keeping watch, the anti-coal contingent marched across town (a short two blocks) to the public hearing, where scores of men in suits and families in flannel and jeans filled the community center. Brent Ross, AECI’s manager for environmental health and safety, began by telling the crowd that demand among the company’s 850,000 consumers was growing, and the company had already considered and rejected alternate forms of energy, including wind. Not only would the plant adhere to environmental standards, Ross said, but AECI’s local investment would create 1,000 temporary jobs during the construction of the $1.3 billion facility and 139 permanent positions to keep it operational.
Officials from the county and nearby towns also touted the economic benefits of the new plant and their confidence in the DNR’s environmental protections. Several rural residents supportive of the plant drew laughs from Norborne locals when they boasted about their continued good health despite living near other coal-fired power plants. One man even criticized the younger coal opponents, saying they didn’t appreciate their electricity and had no idea the hardship of living in a home with no power.
Despite sporadic heckling and sarcastic laughter, dozens of Norborne residents and citizens from around the state testified against the plant. Four students from Washington University Law School in St. Louis dissected the alleged legal failings of the DNR permit and argued that the state was letting AECI pollute more than it should. A pregnant mother and member of Concerned Citizens of Carroll County said AECI would endanger children by spewing harmful toxins, such as mercury, into the air. A Norborne property owner, with land just two miles from the proposed facility, worried that her family’s hundred-year investment would be choked with ash.
Three DNR officials scribbled notes and looked awkwardly out at the crowd, many of whom started shifting uncomfortably in their steel folding chairs as the 6:30 p.m. hearing continued past 9. The DNR will likely be poring over written comments in coming weeks before making a decision that will surely spark protest and, possibly, litigation.
The deadline to submit feedback is November 21. To view the draft permit and address for written comments, click here.
If Kansas is any indication, this fight is just warming up. – Carolyn Szczepanski