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
And now, through the efforts of dozens of members, contributing everything
from hours at the photocopier to legal expertise, the chapter is focusing
on stopping the Peabody Coal’s proposed Thoroughbred plant.
According to Lambert and Cumberland Chapter Chair Lane Boldman, the plans
for the Thoroughbred plant are thoroughly flawed, starting with the astonishing
to proceed granted without an environmental impact statement. The decision
to skip the EIR coincided with a series of contributions to the Republican
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
Site. Unfortunately, its air pollution is the third worst of all national
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
sustain rare albino fish, shrimp, crayfish and other organisms. National
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
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
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
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
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-
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
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
Protection Cabinet, Capitol Plaza Tower, Frankfort, KY 40601.
For more, go to the Cumberland Chapter’s Web site: kentucky.sierraclub.org.
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