Politics and culture have a way of driving a wedge between Lawrence and the rest of the state.

Out west, it's not uncommon to hear cracks about us "liberals in Lawrence" or KU referred to as "Gay-U." Lawrence, on the other hand, tends to think of itself as an oasis in an otherwise backward state. The newly minted state slogan "As big as you think," for example, was welcomed in Lawrence with bumper stickers reading "As bigoted as you think."

In the last few weeks, the divide was brought into further relief by the most divisive issue Kansas has seen since evolution-coal.

At issue is whether Sunflower Electric Power Corp. should be allowed to build a trio of 700-megawatt coal-fired power plants in Holcomb.

Public hearings around the state on the proposal went off as relative formalities compared the one in Lawrence. The consensus of folks out west is that these plants will provide 140 much-needed jobs and stimulate a stagnating economy.

Environmentalists in Lawrence, though, oppose building coal power plants out west because of the carbon, mercury, and toxic gases that come with them-emissions, they say, will drift via the westerly winds into our atmosphere. Coal is also opposed on the grounds that more suitable, progressive power alternatives are readily available in Kansas-namely solar and wind energy.

Over 300 Lawrencians showed up at the Kansas Union for the Lawrence hearing organized by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

To ensure its interests were represented, Sunflower Electric Power Corp. bussed about 50 Holcomb citizens 400 miles east to the KU campus for the public hearing.


Every time a student got up to speak, people supporting the power plants would chuckle and shake their heads like, 'Oh, they don't know what they're talking about.' That was kind of discouraging because it's like, 'It's not your future, it's mine!' -Nicole Reiz, KU Environs president

Nicole Reiz, president of KU Environs, was one of 100 or so students who showed up to the hearing. She says that, upon arriving, the Holcomb group "bolted" for the room and claimed half of the available seats in a matter of seconds. That left 250 attendees without seats.

When the meeting finally got underway, Reiz says there were "cold death stares" across the aisle in either direction. She says the tension between east and west was palpable.

"It was kind of a disaster," Reiz recalls. "There were a few exchanges that would get kind of heated here and there:every time a student got up to speak, people on the Holcomb side would chuckle and look at each other and shake their heads like, 'Oh, they don't know what they're talking about.' That was kind of discouraging because it's like, 'It's not your future, it's mine!'"

At one point, KU police interrupted the hearing, not because of farmer vs. hippie fisticuffs, but to impose fire code regulations. Several people were moved to a room down the hall, where they listened on a makeshift speaker system.


Sunflower Electric Power Corp.'s site, sunflower.net.

During the four-plus-hour meeting, not everyone who signed up was given the chance to speak. The KDHE scheduled another meeting the following night and, as that organization quickly found out, Lawrence has a lot to say about what goes on out west.

That, according to some people in western Kansas, is a problem.

Comment boards on ljworld.com lit up with heated east vs. west debates.

One Dec. 3 post:

"Wasn't there a giant wind farm proposed for the Flint Hills a few years ago? Didn't the environmentalists (Earth Nazis) protesteth too mucheth about thateth? Answer: yes, to both questions. These people have absolutely ZERO credibility. Next thing you know, they'll be teaching about 'Mother Earth' in our public schools-oh, they already do."

Another comment ribbed at what they see as hypocrisy among eastern environmentalists:

"Excuse me while I wait for the Johnson and Douglas County hot tubs get to temperature this morning."

But the stereotyping and hypocrite name-calling goes both ways. Another Dec. 3 post read,"As an aside, I'm genuinely surprised at all the country bumpkins that are proud of their ignorance and lack of concern for the environment. I haven't read one comment supporting the plant that doesn't seem to have some sort of axe to grind against -'Looney-Left' Lawrence."

Send your comments to... Mr. Rick Bolfing Bureau of Air and Radiation , KDHE 1000 SW Jackson, Suite 310 Topeka, KS 66612-1366 Gov. Kathleen Sebelius Kansas State Capitol 300 SW 10th St. Topeka, KS 66612-1590 The deadline is Dec. 15th.

The "Looney Left" Lawrence city commissioners went so far as to vote 3-2 to reject Sunflower's plant proposal. So far, Lawrence is the only town in Kansas to have officially voiced its disapproval.

Steve Miller, a Sunflower CEO, was quoted in the Salina Journal on Nov. 22 as saying, "I personally will make it my crusade to make sure all our western Kansas dollars are diverted as far away from Lawrence as they can be, because they have unfairly stuck their nose in western Kansas' business."

Shortly after, Miller apologized for those comments, saying that he was "upset" about the Lawrence city commission's decision and got "carried away" with his comments.

This type of heated back-and-forth squabble will likely continue until the KDHE determines whether or not to approve Sunflower's permit to build the power plants. The discussion time was extended to Dec. 15, and the final decision is expected soon after.

Renewable energy

Johannes Feddema, despite having been born in Holland and going to school in Africa, is all too familiar with what he calls "the usual red and blue thing in Kansas."

Feddema is a KU professor of geography and environmental studies. He says that all the name-calling, the misunderstanding, and the divisiveness in Kansas is a distraction from the real issue: what to do about energy.

"We should not think about western Kansas as running on empty, people disappearing. Here's an opportunity to build a new industry," he says, adding that this debate offers tremendous opportunities for the state to investigate cleaner, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

The earth's coal supply, Feddema says, will likely dwindle within 300 years. If Kansas was to get the ball rolling on wind energy, he says, the state could become a major industry leader in that market. That would provide more higher paying jobs (like in engineering) now and later on.

By building another "dime-a-dozen," "cookie-cutter" set of coal-firing power plants, Feddema says, Kansas would essentially be moving backward instead of forward. That's the argument many people in Lawrence are making against Sunflower's plant plan.

Audio clips

Coal-fired culture war

However, wind energy isn't as popular in Holcomb as it is in Lawrence.

Robin Pena, Holcomb city administrator, says no one in her town is opposed to wind energy. But, she says, not many people are for it, either.

"Yes, we have windy days out here," Pena says. "But you still cannot rely totally on the wind because you don't know what days the winds are going to blow. It's not a constant, even thing."

Pena is right. According to Raymond Dean, a KU emeritus professor who specializes in electrical engineering, wind power works best when it's backed up by another energy source like coal. When the wind stops blowing, coal-fired power plants take over. The benefit is that you burn less coal while utilizing a cleaner, renewable source of energy.

Since people all over the state don't understand a whole lot about wind energy, Dean says, they're scared to use it. They're unsure how reliable it is and how much it costs.

That's how Pena feels about it. Plus, people there want jobs now. Since Holcomb's main employer-a meatpacking plant that provided over 2,000 jobs-burned down six years ago, the population has dipped below 2,000.

"Ever since then, it's kind of put a strain on the job market around here. It's also been difficult to get other industry in the area to replace the loss," Pena says. "If you don't have industry coming in, you know what happens. You die out. You become a stagnant city."

Dean has done studies comparing the economics of wind vs. coal energy. He found that wind energy actually provides more jobs and is cheaper than coal energy.

The recognized cost of coal energy is about 4.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, as compared with wind energy's cost of 4.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. But after Dean added the externalized cost of health problems and environmental effects like acid rain and global climate change, he came up with far different numbers.

"By the time you get done, and include all the real societal impacts of coal-burning stuff, you find out that it's five times more expensive than wind would be. It's just a no-brainer if you actually look at the problem from an objective and long-range point of view," Dean says.

Plus, wind farms are more spread out and require more manpower than coal plants. Dean says that wind farms would create two and a half times more jobs than coal-fired power plants. Since Kansas has the third-highest wind potential ranking in the United States, and western Kansas boasts the strongest winds in the state, wind energy seems more and more like a sound investment.


(Western Kansas) is being made to think that northeast Kansas is trying to keep them poor or doesn't want them to have jobs. In my opinion, those aren't mutually exclusive things-environmentally beneficial practices and good jobs -Raymond Red Corn, leader of KU's 2020 Vision

Vanishing resources

Raymond Red Corn probably shouldn't be an environmentalist.

The KU junior grew up in one of the most oil-rich regions in the United States, the Osage Nation Reservation in northeast Oklahoma. In the 1920s, oil was discovered and soon after, so was money.

"In the 1920s, the Osage were the richest per capita people in the world during that time. But with that came a lot of corruption. People were poisoned for their share of the oil rights, and my great grandfather was one of those," Red Corn says.

Now, he explains, the towns near the Osage Nation Reservation are "dinky." The Osage became rich too quickly and were driven to excess. Many became addicted to morphine. Some bought cars from the first Mercedes dealership west of the Mississippi, which set up shop nearby.

Red Corn grew up there, during the region's decline, but moved to a much different place-Johnson County-to go to school. Now, he's a KU student who heads 2020 Vision, an organization that aims to cut U.S. dependency on oil by the year 2020.

The connection between oil and coal is simple.

"That's a resource that's not going to last forever," Red Corn says.

Red Corn, along with Reiz and other KU students, rallied against Sunflower's plant proposal at the Capitol Dec. 2. He says he's protesting against Sunflower and the overuse of nonrenewable resources, not the citizens or development in western Kansas.

"In the papers, and especially in blogs on articles, it's been portrayed as Lawrence vs. the rest of the state on this issue or, more generally, northeast Kansas versus western Kansas," Red Corn says.

"I think that's exactly what Sunflower wants, that kind of divisiveness:they're being made to think that northeast Kansas is trying to keep western Kansas poor or doesn't want them to have jobs. In my opinion, those aren't mutually exclusive things, environmentally beneficial practices and good jobs."

Pena doesn't see much divisiveness in Holcomb. She says she's never actually talked to anyone who's against building new coal-fired power plants. Still, she understands that there are people in east Kansas who take the opposite view.

"I think everyone understands the need to be cautious. No one wants to cause anyone health effects or concerns," Pena says, adding that anyone can point out negative environmental effects from any new development.

"They (KDHE) need to make a decision based on the facts, not based on fear or predictions or anything like that," Pena says.


Members of KU Environs are Front Row: Nicole Reiz, Brian Sifton, Emelia LaFortune, Sarah Tucker, Lacie Johnston, Jaf Kazmi, Sam Klein, Chris Proctor, Gianna Short, Dan Swick, Raymond Red Corn

But Nicole Reiz is fearful that the KDHE will permit Sunflower to build the new plants. She has science-backed predictions that lead her to believe that if that happens, her generation will be burdened with asthma, climate change, and a massive sludge cleanup in 50 to 75 years when the plants become obsolete and "turn to dust."

Reiz says that as long as there are cleaner, better alternatives like wind energy, she'll continue to protest against any new coal-fired plant. That probably means she'll continue that other battle, too. Red vs. blue, west vs. east. Until the two sides begin to compromise, the battle seems inevitable.

"We were marching around the Capitol on Saturday and this guy walked by, through our line, and called us dirty hippies. I mean, this is like the most unhippie-ish people you've ever seen. Johnson County moms, kids from KU that just look like normal kids:there were no dreadlocks," Reiz says.

"It gets old. People automatically assume that you're one way when you're just trying to encourage a way of life that's as comfortable but smarter. We can be just as comfortable but do it in a smarter way."


zimmerman 15 years, 1 month ago

Great story! You really hit both sides of the argument very well. At first I thought this was just going to be another story about how different people have different opinions, but you really got into the reasons behind what those opinions are, which doesn't happen as often or as well as it should. I wish the Journal World covered the story as well as you did. Thank you and keep up the good work.

davisnin 15 years, 1 month ago

Feddema saying that the coal supply will likely dwindle within 300 years is akin to saying it will last forever. In that time frame the 'new power plant' debate would have been repeated 4 or 5 times for replacements. Coal is not the crisis oil is, we don't import a large portion of our coal and it isn't going to run out in 30 years. Holcomb is right to think Lawrence is sticking it's nose where it doesn't belong. What does Lawrence do that is environmentally proactive.... bitch. We don't have curbside recycling, we don't have an electric city fleet, we don't have e85, we don't have living machine water treatment, we don't have any of that. We watched as the old "green" walmart was replaced by a conventional construction. No, we have smoking bans and attempts at cell bans an 80 million dollar plan for a chemical water treatment facility and half the population wanting to drain a wetland to build a convenience highway that will only lead to further growth and more traffic. We can't tell other people to test new green technologies unless we do the same. Lets start by changing the building codes so we don't have to use the 'dirty' power of the so-called bumpkins. Flexible film solar shingles on all new construction. Its simple, it doesn't cost anything in taxes, and honestly the new construction in Lawrence is not low income, let them pay. Being the first city to do that could possibly draw one of the manufacturers to produce them in Lawrence, demand is exceeding supply and they will need to expand. Perhaps that would get some new jobs that aren't the $8/hr light industrial that everyone yearns for.
On top of that give landlords in this town 10 years to change over all the furnaces and water heaters and a/c units to high efficiency models. Lord knows they put the cheapest most inefficient ones in now. There's plenty to do at home. Put up or shut up.

thetomdotdot 15 years, 1 month ago

Although I agree with davisnin for the most part, the dynamic between "Put up or shut up." and "...let them pay." always drives me back to the center on these issues.

My work has taken me around the country, and Lawrence is the first community I've lived in in the past 20 years without curbside recycling.

zimmerman 15 years, 1 month ago

Yeah, you're both right. There are quite a few things that we could change in our own town to make things better, but I really don't understand the idea that we shouldn't encourage the rest of the world to have higher standards too. When did wanting positive change in your own town and wanting positive change in the rest of the world become mutually exclusive? Maybe if the other cities you have traveled to encouraged Lawrence to have roadside recycling or many of the other things that we are lacking, then the ideas would get a little more coverage in the media.

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