Issue December 4, 2012

Strange bedfellows

Staunch opponents of the EPA’s ‘War on Coal’ embrace environmental upgrades at Mill Creek plant

When LG&E announced last year that new EPA rules would force the company to make costly retrofits to their Mill Creek coal-fired power plant — paid for by consumers via a large rate hike — many in Frankfort labeled this as part of the federal government’s so-called “War on Coal.”

Gov. Steve Beshear immediately fired off a press release, stating, “We cannot sustain these unfair, unfunded mandates by a federal government intent on devastating Kentucky’s coal industry, and, in turn, on our economic recovery.”

But at the Mill Creek groundbreaking last Thursday, some of those same coal industry advocates were singing quite a different tune.

LG&E’s press conference heralded the beginning of construction on $940 million worth of upgrades to the plant, including new scrubbers that will remove 98 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions (up from 90 percent) and filters to limit the release of particulates such as mercury. Mayor Greg Fischer touted the fact that 700 local jobs would be created at the peak of construction.

But fierce critics of the EPA were there as well, applauding the EPA-mandated move as great for the state’s economy, especially the struggling coal industry.

Such a bizarre sight reflects both the challenges and narrow opportunities for Kentucky coal in this new era, as government officials walk the fine line of guarding a powerful industry from regulation, securing a dwindling market for coal, and protecting the public’s health.

Thursday’s event featured strong words of support from Attorney General Jack Conway’s chief of staff — an office more accustomed to suing the EPA — and Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters, speaking on behalf of the Beshear administration, who won re-election last year on a platform that unapologetically told the “job-killing” EPA to “get off our backs.”

“Clean coal technology investments such as these help secure jobs for the miners in Kentucky, and create economic development opportunities for the commonwealth,” Peters said.

Those miner jobs Peters referred to are specifically in western Kentucky, which will continue to supply 80 percent of the coal for Mill Creek.

Such a stable market for coal in the region is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Just a few years ago, more than 50 percent of the nation’s power supply came from burning coal, but that number recently dropped to as low as 34 percent.

A growing number of utility companies are retiring coal plants in favor of natural gas, largely because coal’s free market advantage as the cheapest source of energy is fading. This is due not just to stricter EPA regulations on burning coal, but also the nose-diving price of natural gas in recent years, as the new (and potentially dangerous) extraction method known as fracking has flooded the market with a cleaner burning and cheaper alternative.

Earlier this year, LG&E’s Cane Run plant, just up the road from Mill Creek, finalized plans to switch to natural gas, pronouncing this as the cheapest move for consumers.

State Rep. Jim Gooch (D-Providence) — perhaps the EPA’s biggest critic in Kentucky, and a global warming denier — tells LEO Weekly he spoke in favor of LG&E’s move last Thursday not because he had a change of heart, but because it ensured a market for coal from his western Kentucky district.

“We all need to work together to try to improve the environment,” Gooch says. “But at the same time, we need to use what’s here, what’s built this state, what’s affordable, what’s reliable.”

Gooch disputes the notion that natural gas — let alone renewable energy like wind or solar — is a cheaper alternative to coal, saying its price is volatile.

“We need to use whatever technologies are available that produce the most reliable, affordable, dependable electricity that we have, and if that’s something else, then we ought to be using something else,” Gooch says. “But they’re not here yet. And anyone who tries to say they are is selling the American people a bill of goods that is not right.”

As for Gov. Beshear’s opinion of LG&E’s latest move, it’s almost like his vociferous criticism from last year never existed.

“Gov. Beshear has never opposed federal regulations that are timely and fairly administered,” spokesman Terry Sebastian says. “The decision by LG&E to update their Mill Creek pollution control equipment is a positive move forward as we continue to ensure our air is cleaner while, at the same time, allowing the effective and efficient use of Kentucky coal.”

While some media outlets echoed LG&E’s press release by labeling the upgrade as “clean coal technology,” there remains a dusty cloud over residents near the plant.

Tom Fitzgerald of the Kentucky Resources Council notes that while local jobs will be created and air quality for most of Louisville will improve, burning coal can only get so “clean.”

“Even if you accept that there is a range of technologies out there that are ‘clean coal,’ this isn’t it,” Fitzgerald says. “This is simply retrofitting for basic pollution control at a traditional pulverized coal plant.”

Though the new scrubbers and filters will decrease emissions, the resulting waste will produce more coal ash with more toxins. Such waste will go into the nearby coal ash pond and landfill, which is already leaching into the Ohio River, is deemed “high-risk” for a breach, and is notorious for blowing ash onto nearby neighborhoods. It’s also running out of space and will soon require a new landfill.

Thomas Pearce of the Sierra Club says LG&E is making a mistake by not investing in renewable energies, adding, “If they had to factor the cost of health care to the public into the equation, this would not even be a question.”

Mark Romines, who complains that his property near Mill Creek is frequently covered by coal ash, says LG&E should have made the same switch as Cane Run.

“If anything, I would prefer to have natural gas to all of that coal ash coming out,” Romines says. “Because it’s causing nothing but health problems.”

LG&E spokesman Brian Phillips tells LEO they weighed the option of switching Mill Creek to natural gas, but found the financial costs for consumers would be exorbitant.