Muhlenburg County has lots of high-sulfur coal and few good-paying jobs. That's probably why nobody there is questioning Peabody Energy's proposal for a huge merchant power plant that would burn high-sulfur coal and revive local mining jobs.
The worries arise downwind. Air pollution from the Muhlenburg generator could slam the door on economic development as far away as Elizabethtown, Hodgenville, Glasgow, Bowling Green and Franklin.
That's because the 1,500 megawatt plant -- and its clouds of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, lead and particulates -- could push the already-polluted region to the brink of what's allowed by federal law. Once that threshold is reached, no new polluting industries are allowed, and existing industries must upgrade pollution controls, leaving them less cash to expand and hire.
These potential economic downsides should be a critical consideration in whether Peabody gets state approval to begin building.
Remember, Peabody would sell the electricity in other states. None of the power is needed here, though Kentuckians could end up paying more for electricity if transmission upgrades are required to handle the extra load. Such a rate increase also would have economic impacts. It could cost jobs in the electricity-intensive aluminum and auto industries.
Fortunately, the legislature has enacted a requirement to weigh the economic effects before permitting merchant power plans. Now it's up to the state siting board to enforce the requirement.
Big Rivers Electric Corp. says the absence of such a cost-benefit analysis renders Peabody's application "fatally incomplete." Big Rivers, which provides power to 105,000 customers in 22 counties, has asked the siting board to deny Peabody's construction permit until such an analysis can be the subject of a hearing.
But judging from recent history, Peabody will flex every bit of its political muscle before resorting to factual persuasion.
Peabody cash appears to have greased the way for this project's approval by the Bush administration, despite strong concerns among career regulators about the power plant's effects on Mammoth Cave National Park. Power plant emissions would worsen visibility at Mammoth Cave, already the worst of any national park, and could push endangered species into extinction.
Incredibly, despite these misgivings, the Bush administration signed off on Peabody's project without even requiring an environmental impact statement.
Some chilling insights into how this might have happened are provided by journalist Michael Shnayerson in a report on Bush appointees in the September edition of Vanity Fair magazine.
Shnayerson chronicles a series of instances in which Peabody and a subsidiary, at critical junctures in the federal approval process, dropped $50,000 or $100,000 into Republican Party coffers.
A Peabody spokesman said the $400,000 in soft money to the GOP already was pledged and had nothing to do with the power plant project.
That may be, but Peabody Energy wields tremendous clout in Kentucky and beyond.
This case will tell much about the strength of Kentucky's merchant power law and siting board. Kentuckians who breathe downwind of Muhlenburg County can only hope they are up to the challenge.