LAWRENCE--The Kansas Sierra Club has intervened in a lawsuit against Westar Energy by the US Department of Justice.
The suit seeks to force Westar’s giant coal-fired power plant Jeffrey Energy Center, near St. Mary’s about 40 miles west of Topeka, to comply with federal Clean Air standards, said Bob Eye, Sierra Club attorney, during a press conference in Lawrence this week.
The Justice Department filed its complaint against Westar in February, saying the utility violated the Clean Air Act by making major modifications to Jeffrey without also installing and operating modern pollution control equipment.
In their filing the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that for more than a decade, the Jeffrey Energy Center has operated without the best available emissions-control technology required by the Clean Air Act that would control emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, contributing to formation of fine particulate matter, smog and acid rain. The regulators ask a Kansas City federal judge to order Westar to install and operate proper air pollution control equipment.
“By failing to do so, Westar has been producing significant and dangerous amounts of air pollution for years,” Eye said.
Westar is trying to come to an agreement with the Department of Justice, said Nick Bundy, utility spokesman.
“Our position in the case hasn’t changed,” he said. “We still hope to come to some agreement in the case with the DOJ.
“If the judge decides the Sierra Club can come in, hopefully we can come to an agreement with them as well.”
According to company information, Jeffrey Energy Center is Westar’s largest coal-fired power plant. The plant, perched on a hill northwest of St. Mary’s, has three 720-megawatt generators capable of producing more than 2 gigawatts. There is almost always a steam plume issuing from each of the three 600-foot smokestacks.
At full load, Jeffrey Energy Center burns 3 million pounds of coal an hour. Each day, at least one “unit train” arrives from the coalfields in the Powder River valley of Wyoming. A unit train has about 110 coal cars and is a mile long. Over the course of a week, about 11 miles worth of coal hoppers will be grabbed by a mechanical grabber, turned over and dumped into its coal stocks.
The plant was built in the early 1970s at a time when the price of oil skyrocketed because of the Arab oil embargo. Many power plants burned fuel oil. The Jeffrey plant and others like it were heralded as a symbol of American energy independence, using American-mined coal to generate electricity.
Vice President Walter Mondale attended the dedication of the power plant. Many Kansas and regional politicians rode a special train from Topeka to the plant for the dedication. The festivities included a parachute drop by the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights skydiving team.
“It’s huge and the sheer volume of pollutants is so large that when it’s out of compliance it has a definite impact on air quality,” Eye said of Jeffrey Energy Center.
The federal action resulted from a disagreement on the type of work done on the plant during the 1980s and 1990s, Bundy said.
Regulators call it major renovation but to Westar the work was regular maintenance and doesn’t need to follow the Clean Air guidelines, he said.
In 2007, Westar made $300 million in improvements in pollution-control equipment, he said. The company plans to make $165 million in improvements to pollution-control equipment to its Lawrence Energy Center.
Scott Allegrucci, director of the Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy, said the suit illustrates that the days of building massive coal-fired power plants are coming to an end and that Kansas is falling behind in making the switch to alternative sources of energy.
The billions spent on new coal-fire plants could be used to create a new economy based on wind power, solar power and other alternative energies, he said.
There’s an irony that Siemens, a German company, is building a manufacturing plant in Hutchinson to build wind generators, Allegrucci said.
“We should be making those generators right here, creating jobs right here,” he said. “Instead we’re importing them.”
Ramping up wind power and installing more generators would revitalize beleaguered rural communities, especially in western Kansas, which would provide good alternatives to coal energy, he said.
“Wouldn’t that be terrible?” Allegrucci said. “But to listen to climate change deniers and status quo fossil fuel interests, you’d think that would be the end of the world.”