o hear New Market resident Susan Brown tell it, all she wants to do is live in the peace and quiet her rural neighborhood provides and bake her children cookies for the holidays.
And while Brown, an attractive, middle-aged mother of three, manages to keep busier than many rural housewives (she’s also the North Platte PTA president and a Girl Scout leader) she never considered herself to be the Erin Brockovich type, that is, an environmental whistleblower.
“I joined the Sierra Club because I wanted to get the free backpack they were offering new members,” Brown concedes.
But Brown said she received more than a backpack from the Sierra Club; she received a wake up call. Through the Sierra Club, Brown learned that Great Plains Power (GPP) had plans to build a giant, coal burning power plant adjacent to the existing Iatan power plant, only four miles north of Weston in Platte County. With an environmental impact statement already in the works and with various permits applied for, the plant could begin construction within the next year.
“When I first heard about it, I panicked and called (County Commissioner) Steve Wegner,” Brown said. “He said (GPP) owned the land and (Platte County) had plans for years…he assured me it wasn’t a big deal.”
Brown said she didn’t think much about it after the phone call until she received a memo from area Sierra Club coordinator, Melissa Blakley. The memo, which announced a meeting for concerned residents, spoke of the proposed Iatan plant and another one, to be built in neighboring Atchison County.
“When I learned we were building not just one, but two plants, and we’re doing it quickly…that’s when I became alarmed,” Brown said. Adding insult to injury, Brown learned the plants would be un-regulated “merchant” plants — that is, the power produced in the plants will not be sold locally, it will be sold on the open energy market to the highest bidder. Environmental impacts Brown and other area residents have every right to be alarmed, Blakley told The Landmark. Although the county won’t be using power from the plant, it will receive an astonishing amount of pollution from it.
“Everyone within 30-miles of these plants will be severely effected by them,” Blakley said, noting that the plants will effect a far greater area when various effects of the plant are considered.
Blakley said the plant would emit up to 67 hazardous chemicals, 55 known neurotoxins, 24 probable carcinogens and contribute to global warming. Most notably, the plants will introduce more mercury and fine particulate matter into the environment, causing a myriad of public health consequences.
Blakley says that approximately 30,000 premature deaths, 20,000 hospitalizations, 603,000 asthma attacks, and 5.1 million lost workdays can be attributed to coal-fired power plant pollution every year in America.
The proposed mercury emissions are particularly troublesome for Missouri residents. Missouri is already under a full state mercury advisory that warns residents to dramatically limit their intake of fish captured in local waters to about one average sized fish per week. Maine warns pregnant women not eat any warm water fish at all.
Mercury is so volatile that only one gram of the substance released into a 20-acre lake can result in the issuance of a fish advisory. According to the EPA, the existing Iatan plant pumps out 313 pounds of mercury per year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 percent of American women of childbearing age have elevated levels of mercury in their bodies from eating contaminated fish. According to the EPA, studies have shown that infants born of mothers who were exposed to high levels of mercury are more likely to experience permanent and irreversible developmental effects, including reduced motor skills and dulled senses.
Exposure to particulate matter is a leading cause of asthma among children. Asthma is a chronic respiratory disorder that makes breathing difficult. Children are particularly susceptible to air pollution because they spend more activity time outdoors, Blakely said.
The numbers in Kansas and Missouri seem to bear these statistics out.
Kansas, which has 8 coal-fired power plants, has approximately 18,000 cases of asthma among children within a 30-mile radius of the plant. Missouri, which has 20 plants, has a little under 66,000 cases of asthma.
Fuzzy Math The Platte County Commission announced a signed economic development agreement with Great Plains Power for the coal-fired plant last Dec. 12. When the decision was made, the commission hailed the decision as one that would create new jobs and spending for the county. The county commission estimated that 100 new jobs would be created and 1,500 skilled tradesmen would be employed for the plant’s construction — estimated at 44 weeks. In addition, after a period of 22-years, ownership of the plant would revert to the county, ostensibly for the county’s energy needs.
At the time of the announcement, John DeStefano, GPE president said, “an adequate supply of energy is key to making certain that the area’s growth can be sustained for electrical demands.”
A check of the facts reveals this scenario can be extremely misleading.
Platte County could not utilize the power because there simply isn’t a need for the plant. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the proposed Weston Bend power plant will generate approximately 800 megawatts of energy — enough to power nearly one million homes. Platte County, which already has a 670-megawatt facility at Iatan, only has 76,000 residents and would have to endure a growth spurt nearly unrivaled in the annals of history to come within range of needing the additional power from this plant.
In addition, the Kansas City metropolitan area already has power plants in Wyandotte, Jackson, and Buchanan counties.
In the year since, GPP has acknowledged that its company plans on becoming a major player in the unregulated, merchant energy business. Great Plains Energy (GPE), the parent company of Great Plains Power and KCP&L, already sells energy on the open market to eight unregulated states including California, Ohio, New York and New Jersey through their Pittsburgh affiliate, Strategic Energy.
Athough GPE has repeatedly denied interest to local newspapers, including the Kansas City Star, in building the power plants at this time, the company has a memorandum of understanding (MUA) with energy services firm Babcock & Wilcox to develop and construct up to five more power plants in the Midwest region.
In the MUA, Great Plains Energy president Steven Easley commends the alliance for posting a 33% reduction in construction time during the 550-megawatt Hawthorne power plant project in Jackson County. Easley said the construction there was completed in 22 weeks, 14 weeks less than the industry standard. Applying the same timetable to the proposed Weston Bend project, it is likely that the construction there could be completed in less than the 44 weeks assumed.
At the time of this writing, representatives from Great Plains Power could not be reached.
The next step Brown and Blakley said they plan on taking their message to anyone that will listen.
“People are shocked when I tell them about this,” Brown said. “They want to know how to stop this.”
Blakley said a first step is to request a formal public hearing from the Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps is charged with the task of approving the project’s water permits.
“According to the National Environmental Policy Act, they must do this,” Blakley said.
The Army Corps told The Landmark they aren’t sure if they’re going to have a public hearing on the matter.
“Typically we hold a public hearing to gather information to help us make a decision on granting a water permit,” said Doug Berka, regulatory project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. “(The Army doesn’t) make available a forum for people to say whether they are for or against a project.”
In the meantime, Brown and Blakley said they would continue in their fight. The two plan on appearing at the Platte County Commission meeting this Thursday. In addition, Brown has been writing local newspapers and sending letters and emails to interested parties.
“The reason why we live in Platte County is to escape the pollution of big cities,” Brown said. “Well, I’m afraid to say that those people who know about this and can afford to leave the county will. I am not raising my children in the shadow of three coal-burning smokestacks.”
Faced with a choice like that, Brown said it’s easy to understand why plans for the power plant would still move ahead.
“They think they can make money here,” Brown said. “It’s convenient to our river, they already own the land and they think there’s not a lot of people here who will complain or make some noise.
“Hopefully, they’re wrong.”