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From Copper to Coal
As other states continue to wage war on one our dirtiest energy sources, a small town in Nevada looks to coal to save its economy. 

This piece of high desert could be the site of a new coal-fired power plant.
Sierra Pacific Resources

Near the Steptoe Valley and Great Basin National Park, the small town of Ely nestles in the pristine high-desert landscape of White Pine County, Nevada, 250 miles north of Las Vegas. The surrounding park is home to majestic Wheeler Peak (measuring 13,063 feet), 5,000-year-old bristlecone pines, and some of the darkest skies around—perfect for Milky Way viewing. Locals say the Steptoe Valley is also one of the best places to see elk, sage grouse, and other wildlife.

Ely (rhymes with “freely”) is also the proposed location for Sierra Pacific Resources’s sprawling 3,000-acre, 2,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant. For former White Pine County Commissioner John Chachas, who has spent his whole life in the town of 5,000, this project brought not outrage or concern—as similar projects have done in other regions of the country—excitement over the economic shot in the arm.

As many as 121 coal-fired power plants are in the planning stages across the nation (see “Smoke on the Water,” Incite, January-February). With mounting anxiety over air pollution and global climate change, however, many community groups are uniting to halt plant construction in the permitting process. Plans for coal energy have recently been blocked in Idaho, Washington, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Montana, among other states.

Activists in Montana, for example, have stopped construction of one of six proposed plants in the state. After a series of legal challenges, the The Montana Department of Environ-
mental Quality revoked the air pollution permit for the 780-megawatt Roundup Power Project, which would have increased Montana’s overall greenhouse-gas emissions by 27 percent.

Anne Hedges, program director of the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), says her organization—which helped stop the Roundup plant—is now concentrating on blocking another proposed 250-megawatt plant called High-
wood Generating Station from being built 10 miles east of Great Falls, adjacent to organic farms and a national land-
mark commemorating Lewis and Clark’s travels along the Missouri River.

Hedges rallied farmers, ranchers, and other concerned community members in these anti-coal efforts. “It’s not just environmentalists who are opposing coal,” she says. “Some people who probably don’t even believe in global warming are concerned with how their rights are being impacted.” And they’re prepared to fight each new plant proposal that comes along, she says.

A rendering of what the Ely coal-fired power plant might look like.
Sierra Pacific Resources

But the sentiment in Ely is quite the opposite. Chachas de-
scribes the economy of his hometown as “rollercoaster boom and bust,” dependent since the 1900s on a copper mine in the nearby town of Ruth. The city took a hit when the Kennecott Copper Company sold the mine in the mid-1970s and laid off hundreds of workers. Since then, Chachas says, frequent changes in mine ownership have caused families to con-
stantly migrate in and out of town. “People up and left their homes, and those of us who survived are just now on the upswing, but that’s not going to last long,” Chachas says.

The median household income in Ely, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, is $36,408—more than 30 percent below the national average. Approximately 11 percent of Ely families live below the poverty line. The average home in Ely is valued at nearly $244,000 less than an average Nevada home. Chachas and other members of Steptoe Valley Energy Advocates, a group he and other locals formed to promote construction of the Ely Energy Center, predict that the plant could give a more permanent boost to the economy.

“We have a window of opportunity for economic stability,” Chachas says. “We understand concerns for air pollution, but this community has an opportunity to become financially stable and grow.”

On paper the benefits to Ely justify building the plant. Pacific spokesman Mark Severts estimates it will create 1,500 to 2,000 jobs in its construction phase—although only five percent of those jobs will go to locals, he says. The $500 million in tax revenue pouring in during the first 10 years of the project, however, will go straight back to the community.
“The high school has not had an athletic field to hold football games. They don’t have a community swimming pool,” says Severts. “There are roads that need building and repairing, so tax revenue would be a blessing.”

Much of the Ely community sees the plant as a way out of economic depression, too, according to both Chachas and Severts. But others argue it’s not the best way: The local Sierra Club chapter and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) maintain that Ely should try to recover in a way that doesn’t make a huge contribution to greenhouse-gasses. At the Nevada Clean Energy Summit in Reno this past August, Reid announced his avid opposition to coal-fired plants, vow-
ing to do everything in his power to stop any new construc-
tion of the dirty energy source within Nevada’s borders. The state leads the nation in geothermal and solar power per capita and, Reid believes, should continue to put its resources into renewable energy.

Utilities continue to trumpet new coal power plant construc-
tion, touting “clean coal” technologies such as burning low-sulfur coal to reduce sulfur emissions, and carbon sequestration, which captures carbon dioxide from the coal-burning processes and stores it underground. Severts says the Ely plant will use Wyoming coal with the lowest sulfur content and will be retrofitted to incorporate carbon sequestration and storage technology. This technology has not yet been successful enough to implement on coal-fired plants as large as Ely, however, and many environmental groups say clean coal technologies will never justify coal as an energy source.

“We can’t build new plants on the mythology that we’re going to have this technology up and running in the next couple of years,” says Hedges of the MEIC.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment recently denied an air permit for a Sunflower Electric Power project in rural Holcomb, located on the west side of the state, on the basis that the greenhouse gases threaten public health and the environment. The permit would have been the next step toward construction for two 700-megawatt coal-fired plants. Together the plants would have produced 11 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, not to mention emit dangerous amounts of mercury, says Kansas Department of Health spokesperson Joe Blubaugh. “We already have locations in the state with long-term fish consumption advisories,” Blu-
baugh says. Airborne mercury makes its way into streams and lakes and moves up the food chain. Accumulation of mercury can have neurological effects on young children and can damage the developing nervous systems of the fetus, according to the EPA.

Blubaugh says the department also took into consideration how the added greenhouse gas could change weather patterns in the state, and that granting the permit would ultimately be a bad decision for Kansans. He says the decision opens up opportunities to explore more renewable energy options such as wind and biofuels. Just like in Ely, utility representatives say the plants will create jobs and give the state the added megawatts it needs. But for Kansas, the environment took precedent. “As we start to develop clean and renewable energy sources, they will have as big of a potential for economic growth as the coal plants could offer,” Blubaugh says. Sunflower appealed the decision and the state supreme court will hear the case early in 2008.

The period for public comment on the Ely Energy Center ends in mid-January, and Sierra Pacific is still completing a metic-
ulous environmental impact assessment, Severts says. There is still time for the community to challenge the project before the state’s Public Utilities Commission permits its construction. For many of the town’s residents, however, smokestacks spewing fossil fuels into the mountainous landscape likely symbolize a fruitful economic future that offers more stability than the copper industry—at least for a few years. But for those concerned about the planet’s climate, new roads and a football field seem hardly an even exchange.

To find out how dirty (or clean) your local power plant is, visit Carbon Monitoring for Action.

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Read related story: “Smoke on the Water.”

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