It was a familiar setting — the same Henderson County courtroom where concerned citizens had gathered in 2001 to discuss a zoning variance for a previous proposal by ERORA, a private developer with virtually no experience as an electrical power producer.
Although the previous permit was for a conventional coal-fired power plant, the new idea is for an integrated gasification combined cycle project, a technology that proponents claim is much cleaner in terms of toxic emissions than conventional coal-fired plants.
ERORA, a group of three former employees of a Louisville-based utility, has in recent months acquired a $500 million financial commitment from the internationally renowned D.F. Shaw financial group and a $200 million to $400 million commitment from General Electric Credit.
In turn, ERORA has promised to use all union labor in the construction of the plant.
A large and formidable number of proponents of the project, wearing little white union bug stickers proclaiming "AI Support Cash Creek," assembled in the hearing room more than an hour before the meeting was convened.
However, when speakers began to express themselves at the podium, observers received quite a different impression. After years of hard work, writing, speaking, pushing elected officials and even resorting to occasional acts of street theater, it would appear as if proponents in the long struggle over clean air carried the day.
People such as Christina Belt, who lives in Evansville, wonder why we always seem to be confronted with the societal trade-off of economic development with greater health risks.
Jean Webb, another Evansville resident, read an article titled "Air Pollution Can Break Your Heart," from a quarterly publication of Welborn Health Plans, which discusses how life expectancy is reduced in areas where air quality remains a problem.
Sister Michelle Norrick is president of the Ursaline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph, whose nearby national headquarters is a retirement home for about 80 elderly nuns, some of whom have respiratory problems. It is just south of Curtsville, Ky., immediately downwind of the proposed plant site.
Having witnessed the human costs and quality-of-life issues associated with coal-fired power plants throughout her life, she asked state officials, "Would you put this plant five miles upwind from your grandmother's home? We have 80 grandmothers living in our home."
Tony Byrn likes to hunt and fish. He owns a farm not far from the proposed plant site. He recounted how several years ago, while quail hunting near another coal-fired plant, he noticed that snow on the surrounding ground had turned black from pollution in the air.
Don Clements is another close neighbor of the plant. He is concerned that the power will be shipped out of state while all the other plants owned by utilities in the area will continue to supply the electrical needs of the local population. Criticizing the investors for living elsewhere, he claimed that the attitude of the ultimate consumers in California and the East Coast is to "let the dumb old Kentuckians put up with the dirt and the filth — they don't know any better."
These were not for the most part smooth, articulate environmental activists armed with tables of statistics, air modeling data and other facts pertaining to our air quality crisis. They were instead regular working-class citizens who pay their taxes, obey the law and generally wish to be left alone. They understand their right to breathe clean air is under assault by nameless, faceless corporate interests and the government officials who permit such folly.
Another heartening aspect was the wide geographical area represented at the podium. Speakers included health care professionals from Henderson and residents of nearby Daviess County and Owensboro, Ky. They also hailed from Evansville and Vanderburgh County. Attorney Tom Bodkin spoke on behalf of the town of Newburgh and the Warrick County Commissioners, and there were even residents of Dubois County, Ind., who traveled many miles to express similar air quality concerns.
They outnumbered the proponent speakers preoccupied with employment opportunities in the construction trades by a two-to-one margin, and it was hard to come away from this hearing without sensing a certain strength in the relative weakness of those who expressed their concerns.
They are not millionaires. They do not win or finance elections. They do not make financial commitments to those who seek fortunes at the expense of electrical ratepayers they will never meet. But they do have truth on their side.
We have turned a corner in terms of capturing the hearts, minds and imaginations of the American public, and they are demanding cleaner air now.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher, are you listening? You ignore their pleas at your own peril.
David Coker is a community activist and a local free-lance writer.