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The Planet
Stopping King Coal

Cumberland Chapter Fights ‘Thoroughly Flawed’ Thoroughbred Plant

By Brian Vanneman

Hilary Lambert remembers a milestone energy policy speech delivered by Vice President Cheney in 2001. "He suggested that America’s energy needs would demand the completion of a new power plant every week for the next 20 years." Not long after that announcement, Lambert and her friends in the Cumberland Chapter remarked that, "all these plants must be planned for Kentucky."

By June 2001, 24 coal-fired power plants had entered the permitting process in Kentucky "We recognized," says Lambert, the Bluegrass Group’s conservation co-chair, "that we were going to have to get really serious; we’re going to become professionals."

The chapter has gotten serious. In 2002, volunteer Ramesh Bhatt spearheaded efforts to suspend construction of the Pioneer Energy plant in Trapp, just outside Lexington. And now, through the efforts of dozens of members, contributing everything from hours at the photocopier to legal expertise, the chapter is focusing its energy on stopping the Peabody Coal’s proposed Thoroughbred plant.

Lane Boldman

According to Lambert and Cumberland Chapter Chair Lane Boldman, the plans for the Thoroughbred plant are thoroughly flawed, starting with the astonishing consent to proceed granted without an environmental impact statement. The decision to skip the EIR coincided with a series of contributions to the Republican Party and increased federal support for the project.

The problems continue with the plant’s siting—Mammoth Cave National Park is located 50 miles downwind from the proposed location. Mammoth Cave is Kentucky’s only national park, contains the world’s longest cave system, and was designated an International Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, its air pollution is the third worst of all national parks.

With a 1,500-megawatt output, Thoroughbred would be one of the biggest plants in the state, operated by the world’s biggest producer of coal power. It would be one of a new generation of plants burning high-sulfur coal, a dirtier but abundant type of fuel, which until now has been little-used. According to Peabody’s application, the plant’s annual emissions would include 420 pounds of mercury, more than 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 509 tons of volatile organic compounds. In technical terms, says Boldman, that’s a lot of pollution. These pollutants would sharply increase health risks downwind, for both visitors and wild inhabitants of Mammoth Caves, and residents of Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County, which has already been named worst of 736 Southeastern counties for health risks caused by poor air quality.

But while the environmental impacts of Peabody’s new plant would fall on Kentucky residents, the power generated by the plant would be sold outside the state. Because Kentucky already produces enough power for its own consumption, nearly all of the plants proposed since 2001 are "merchant" facilities, which would sell energy to outside utilities.

Lambert fears that mercury and ash from the Thoroughbred site would find its way into the groundwater and the vast network of subterranean passages that sustain rare albino fish, shrimp, crayfish and other organisms. National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists demanded further information and assurances about the project’s effects on regional air, water, and wildlife before the plan proceeds. Thoroughbred even drew opposition from another major coal producer, Big Rivers, because that company feared the new plant would worsen air quality so much that no future plants would be allowed.

The curious turn of events in the Thoroughbred permitting process—a flawed plant proposal accepted and approved without an impact statement—attracted the attention of journalist Michael Schnayerson as he was researching a feature story for Vanity Fair magazine on the Bush administration’s Department of Interior appointees. Schnayerson uncovered a series of donations made by Peabody Coal to the Republican Party. Over a two-and-a-half month period beginning in July 2002, as various government agencies evaluated and signed off on the Thoroughbred proposal, Peabody gave a total of $450,000 to the GOP. Peabody says the contributions had been committed to the party before the Thoroughbred permit became an issue.

The Thoroughbred story has played out in a political and financial landscape that since 2001 has become much more promising for coal. Despite the fact that the energy bill drafted by Cheney’s task force in that year still has not become law, the coal industry can sense good times ahead, in the form of unprecedented subsidies and relaxed environmental oversight. The energy bill now being debated on Capitol Hill contains $4.5 billion dollars in subsidies for "clean coal"—a concept that Boldman calls an "oxymoron." The coal industry would receive a tax credit for every kilowatt/hour of energy sold, while taxpayer money would create a $1.8 billion program to study new coal-burning technologies.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration reinterpreted its rules to allow "mountaintop removal"—dumping of earth and waste stripped from mountaintops into adjacent stream beds and valleys.

A year ago, shortly after the state issued an air permit for Thoroughbred, Lambert, two other Club members, the Cumberland Chapter, and the Indiana- based Valley Watch filed an appeal to revoke it. The Club will begin presenting its case to an administrative panel on November 5. Boldman is guardedly optimistic. "It’s been a David versus Goliath fight," she says. "We have one paid lawyer; their team has created huge amounts of work for us."

At stake is not just the Thoroughbred plant, but the momentum of the state’s reinvigorated coal industry. "If we can win this case," says Boldman, "it will be easier for other activists to hold the line as well."

Write a letter urging that the permit for the Thoroughbred power plant be recalled for further review. Mail to: Secretary Hank List, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet, Capitol Plaza Tower, Frankfort, KY 40601.

For more, go to the Cumberland Chapter’s Web site:

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