J500 Media and the Environment

In Coal Blood — Finding an Alternative for Holcomb, Kansas by rarab


Editor’s note: The following is part of the Tangled Up In Green series I’m co-authoring with Adam.

Does the town of Holcomb, Kansas sound familiar?

I’m sure it does if you’ve read “In Cold Blood,” or seen the movies based on the book and its author Truman Capote.

In a perverted way that negative association has been somewhat of a godsend. People remember Holcomb; they immediately recall it as the place where a senseless and unspeakable crime was committed.

Unfortunately, it looks like Holcomb may be preparing for a sequel, featuring yet another heinous act. This time it involves the attempts of Sunflower Electric Corp.—along with several lawmakers—to force an expansion of the power company’s Holcomb facilities, which would include two hazardous coal-burning electric plants.

Call it “In Coal Blood,” if you will (sorry…if you hear a churning noise under your feet it’s probably just Mr. Capote spinning in his grave like a rotisserie chicken).

Back in October, Rod Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, with the support of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, rejected the air permits for the company’s proposed pair of 700-megawatt coal-burning electric plants, citing the devastating impact emissions from carbon dioxide—and other greenhouse gases—would have on the environment.

In other words, it was the first time a proposed power plant had been rejected by using a “global warming” defense. This defense certainly wasn’t far-fetched. After all, the proposed plants would spew some 11 million tons of CO2 annually, making them the largest new source of such emissions in the nation.

But, of course, the battle didn’t end there.

Sunflower Electric and its supporters in the state legislature continue to try and ram this project down our throats. They insist it is needed to meet rising energy demands in western Kansas; they also argue that it will lead to much-needed economic development in one of the poorest regions of the state.

Or as Greg Brady look-alike Sen. Sam Brownback recently put it:

“Expansion of the Sunflower facility would have created 2,000 jobs during construction and an additional 400 permanent jobs and billions of dollars in economic development.”

Two thousand temporary jobs and 400 permanent ones—is that all we get for destroying the planet? Well, heck, throw in 30 pieces of silver and you got yourself a deal!

Then again, I’m sure Brownback’s job estimates are low. After all, several other jobs might be created as a result of this expansion, namely hospital receptionists, pulmonary specialists, insurance claims adjusters…

Moreover, proponents also fail to emphasize that Kansans will only receive about 10 percent of the energy generated from the plants; the remaining 90 percent will be shipped off to Colorado and Texas. They conveniently overlook the fact that all of the waste—namely mercury dumped in the water—will remain right here in Kansas.

Perhaps that, too, will create more jobs: water inspectors, Hazmat workers, not to mention the voluntary citizen soldiers needed to fight off the giant mutant fish that will threaten to take over Kansas by 2011.

Still, even Sammy B. realizes that coal alone is not the answer:

“The new coal plants would be part of an integrated bioenergy center that would have significant benefits for the environment. For example, much of the carbon produced by the coal plants would be captured and used to grow algae, which would be crushed to make biodiesel. Ethanol, another renewable fuel, would be produced onsite by using methane gas from livestock facilities.”

So let me get this straight: we only need 10 percent of the energy a plant like this would generate, and we know that alternative methods (proposed only as supplemental energy) are available, and yet we want to go ahead and produce far more than we need simply so a corporation can cut a deal with two other states, all while destroying our own water. Sounds like a plan to me!

Let’s be honest here, the plant is not about meeting surging energy demands; it’s about making money. We could meet the energy demands with a combination of alternative methods that, while not perfect, would leave a far smaller carbon footprint—I mean, Brownback didn’t even mention wind energy, which capitalizes on one of our state’s greatest natural resources.

But all of that is a hard sell to the folks of western Kansas. Times are hard in rural America.

We can—and should—argue that the coal plants are not in the best interest of the folks out west, but we need to do more than simply shoot down the proposal. We need to offer them something concrete in its place. What that entails exactly is beyond my tiny brain, but I imagine it would require bringing politicians, environmentalists, alternative energy experts, and western Kansans together to show that alternative energy and jobs can be had through far less damaging means—and that the two concepts are anything but mutually exclusive.

I hope that Holcomb eventually shakes off its reputation as the setting for one of the most brutal crimes depicted in American literature. Here’s to hoping it comes to represent the small town of the future—one that simultaneously respects the environment and the needs of its residents.

There. I think I finally made Mr. Capote stop spinning.


1 Comment so far
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Brilliant post. I agree with you wholeheartedly. As Barbara Ballard so astutely stated during Focus the Nation, we need to offer alternatives to the coal fired plants. It is not enough to simply say NO to coal. We have to say YES to something else. Not something that we recognize in a few years – something that will feed families and pay mortgages now. I think what you say is key, we have to do better. The citizens of Western Kansas deserve it.

Comment by j500

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