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LENEXA, Kan. — It looked like the war of the different-colored T-shirts.
Sierra Club members and other environmentalists sported light green shirts proclaiming “Save our communities: Climate action now,” while those who supported the coal industry wore navy blue ones reading “Coal keeps the lights on.”
The battle played out Monday night in Lenexa, a suburb of Kansas City, as part of a series of 11 hearings across the U.S. organized by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is seeking to consult with the public on the development of regulations governing carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. The EPA must propose those rules by June 2014.
The meetings are being held against the backdrop of various initiatives by President Barack Obama to drive new policies aimed at curbing climate change and the greenhouse gases that contribute to it. Earlier this week he issued an executive order to help states build stronger infrastructure, including roads and bridges, aimed at resisting a more extreme climate in which droughts, floods and intense storms become more common.
Electric power plants account for a third of the greenhouse gases released in the U.S., and much of the debate in Kansas this week boiled down to a fierce argument over the future of existing coal-fired power plants, pitting supporters of coal against those who say the health of the environment was at stake. It took place in a part of the country that votes solidly Republican and where many people profess deep skepticism about the reasons behind climate change.
An hour before the hearing began, environmental supporters gathered for a rally outside the EPA building.
“Carbon pollution doesn’t respect state borders,” said Glen Hooks, a Sierra Club activist from Little Rock, Ark. “Neither do superstorms or wildfires.”
In his introductory remarks at the hearing, local EPA director Karl Brooks said, “Science tells us climate change is real.” He explained that the EPA wants public input and continued, “We’re here to hear ideas.”
Brooks and other EPA officials on hand got what they wished for and heard plenty of strong opinions from a large crowd. Out of 324 people from Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa attending the four-hour meeting, 139 took the opportunity to speak their minds — with a three-minute time limit — in one of the three rooms of hearings running concurrently.
Electric-company officials, state representatives, concerned grandparents, health care workers, scientists, park rangers, business owners, union officials, ministers — all joined the parade of those taking the microphone. Both sides forcefully voiced their arguments. Those concerned with climate change argued for the moral imperative to save the planet, while others said escalating electricity costs would result in higher unemployment and devastate families.
Those asking — sometimes even begging — for stricter regulation of coal outnumbered supporters roughly 2 to 1. Many made references to “dirty coal,” saying the more common phrase “clean coal” was “an oxymoron.”
Johann Bruhn, a retired forest-health scientist and professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, was moved to tears as he asked the EPA “to do the right thing by our children and grandchildren.”
His research has looked at the threats to Missouri forests from climate change, and he advocated a switch to alternative, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.
“Why spend Missouri treasure on Wyoming coal,” he asked, “when the wind blows free in Missouri and the sun shines freely here as much as it does in Florida?”
He said the cost per kilowatt-hour of solar- and wind-generated electricity is less than that generated by coal plants.
But supporters of coal-based power spoke out too.
Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, a trade group representing businesses, said 82 percent of Missouri’s power is generated by coal-fired plants and 60 percent of that electricity is purchased by commercial and industrial users. A rate increase would place “a double whammy on families,” with job losses on top of increased costs for many goods and services.
“Don’t try to fit the square peg of regulation in the round hole of reason,” he said.
“Reliable and affordable electricity” is possible because of coal-fired power plants, said Steven Whitworth, a director at Amaren, which supplies electricity to 63 counties in eastern Missouri.
Others supporting coal-fired plants argued that rate increases could force families to choose among paying for food, medicine or electricity.
Mary Carroll, wearing a “Coal keeps the lights on” shirt, was the first person to comment. Calling herself a mother, grandmother and former elected official, she said she worried about the impact of potential rate increases.
Scott Albertson, from Boilermakers Union Local 83 AFL-CIO, said “massive job losses” would result if coal-fired plants were forced to close.
Anti-coal speakers deployed economic arguments too.
Jim Horlacher, an investment adviser and financial planner in Lenexa, believes shifting to renewable sources of energy would result in new jobs. He said that Cloud Community College in Concordia, Kan., offers a successful program training people to work in the wind-energy industry and that some are hired before they even graduate.
He believes restrictions on coal-fired power plants would lead to a more diverse mix of power sources with less central control.
“There’ll be a new competitive marketplace,” he said. “Right now, it’s a regulated monopoly.”
The health cost of electricity generated by coal-fired plants also provided a common theme for many of those commenting.
Cynthia Tiedeman, a retired nurse in the Omaha, Neb., school system, recalled many students suffering from asthma, which she blamed on the coal plants near the city.
“Asthma was the No. 1 reason for missing school,” she said, but it is the vivid memory of a girl having an asthma attack on the school playground that haunts her.
“There was that black cloud from the coal plant in the background,” Tiedeman said.
Most of those who supported coal-fired power plants kept their arguments to the economic benefits, but one Kansas lawmaker, state Rep. Dennis Hedke, a Republican from Wichita, drew laughter from the crowd when he denied the existence of global warming trends.
That cut little ice with the next speaker, Chuck McLaughlin, who said he worked for the EPA more than 30 years.
“I’m worried about my grandchildren,” he said, adding that as climate change continues, “Kansas will revert to a desert.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that the Crimea region of Ukraine might already be lost to Russian control