When the top environmental regulator in Kansas rejected its bid to build two new power units in 2007, citing health concerns, Sunflower Electric Power Corp. refused to take no for an answer. When the governor vetoed bills that would have paved the way for construction in 2008 and 2009, Sunflower again refused to relent.
The company’s persistence paid off. In 2009, the new governor approved construction of a new coal plant in the tiny city of Holcomb, so long as Kansas legislators backed renewable energy policies at the same time. The state regulator who initially denied Sunflower’s permit? He was let go.
Sunflower said it won the permit on merit, and that political influence was not a factor.
Yet the company’s success is a telling snapshot of how, when industry flexes its muscles over Clean Air Act issues, it often wins. From Kansas to Louisiana to Texas, Wisconsin and Ohio, community groups have fought new plants, expansions and chronic emissions – only to see industry score victories with regulators and politicians.
“We’re not protecting public health today,” said Jim Tarr, an air pollution consultant in California who worked as an engineer for the Texas Air Control Board in the 1970s. “One of the primary reasons we’re not is that the environmental agencies have been co-opted by the people doing the polluting.”
Industry’s influence plays out at every step of the process: From the campaign contributions it spreads to sway policy to its role shaping clean air rules to its resistance to enforcement actions brought by regulators.
Its reach is deeper than most realize.
Two just-published reports – one from academic researchers, the other from the Environmental Protection Agency’s own inspector general – detail industry’s role in shaping Clean Air Act regulations meant to protect communities from dirty air.