Category Archives: Environment

Delay in alerting residents to water pollution is outrageous

waterfaucetWhat’s even more alarming than the report that the groundwater in several northwest Wichita neighborhoods is contaminated is the news that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment discovered the pollution in 2009. Why didn’t KDHE tell residents about the pollution sooner? Funding used for testing private wells wasn’t made available through the KDHE’s Dry Cleaning Remediation Program until earlier this year. So some residents have been drinking and bathing in potentially cancer-causing water for the past four years because KDHE couldn’t scrape up some money to test a few more wells? That’s outrageous.

How can renewable-energy supporters compete with Kochs?

turbinewindmillSenate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, argued Tuesday that a bill blocking another gambling vote in Sedgwick County for 18 years was needed because opponents of expanded gaming have difficulty competing with the resources of casino owner Phil Ruffin. “He spends a lot of money on influencing legislators,” Wagle said. But just a few hours later, the Senate approved a bill revoking the state’s renewable portfolio standard. The standard has helped generate billions of dollars of investment in Kansas and is overwhelmingly supported by the public, according to a recent survey. But the standard is opposed by the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which spent more than a million dollars last election purging moderates from the state Senate. How can supporters of renewable energy, which includes faith groups, compete with those resources?

KDHE quietly approved massive hog-farm expansion

seaboardhogsGiven all the controversy, debate and public hearings in the late 1990s and early 2000s about corporate hog farming, it was stunning how quietly the Kansas Department of Health and Environment approved a massive expansion of a Seaboard Foods hog-feeding operation in western Kansas. The permit was signed on Feb. 26 but wasn’t public until last week, when the Sierra Club sent out a news release criticizing the state’s approval, Associated Press reported. With the expansion, the facility in Greeley County will become the nation’s second-largest hog-feeding operation, according to the Sierra Club, and will generate roughly twice as much waste as the city of Wichita. Concerns about corporate hog farms haven’t changed: pollution, overwhelming smell and depletion of water supply.

Is climate-change denial now official Sedgwick County policy?

Arctic MeltSedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau left no doubt that he was speaking in his official capacity when he testified last week in Topeka in favor of a resolution that opposes President Obama’s climate action plan. His written testimony began: “The Sedgwick County Commission would like to voice our support for” House Resolution 6043 “and encourage the committee members to support its passage.” In his remarks, he also criticized Obamacare and a short-lived USDA program called “Meatless Mondays.” But does the full County Commission really deny, as the resolution does, that human activity has anything to do with global sea level and that greenhouse-gas emissions have anything to do with Earth’s temperature? If so, it’s at odds with 97 percent of climate scientists and the major U.S. scientific agencies.

Why does Schmidt care about Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan?

schmidtWhy did Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt file a brief this month opposing an agreement to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, which is a thousand miles from Kansas? Because agriculture interests are worried that the Environmental Protection Agency will next want to clean up the Mississippi River basin. “The issue is whether EPA can reach beyond the plain language of the Clean Water Act and micromanage how states meet federal water-quality standards,” Schmidt wrote in the brief on behalf of Kansas and 20 other states, mostly in the Midwest and South. A federal District Court ruled last fall that the EPA didn’t exceed its authority. The ruling also noted that the cleanup plan was developed with the participation of all states in the watershed over a period of years. Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, doesn’t appreciate the intervention by Schmidt and others. “Don’t tell us how to restore clean water in our backyard,” he said.

Kansans like wind power, energy standard

turbinecowsMore than 9 in 10 Kansas voters support using renewable energy, according to a new poll conducted by North Star Opinion Research and commissioned by environmental and wind-energy advocates. And though some state lawmakers, including House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, want to revoke the state’s renewable energy standard, 75 percent of voters surveyed (including 73 percent of Republicans) support the 2009 law requiring Kansas utility companies to generate 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. More than two-thirds of voters would support raising the energy standard to 25 percent, even if that would cost them more, according to the poll. Majorities of voters said they would be willing to pay between $1 and $5 more per month to increase the renewable energy standard.

Brownback a champion of climate change?

Arctic MeltGov. Sam Brownback likely winced at being included in a list of “eight champions of climate change in the U.S. in 2013” published in the Guardian newspaper. Brownback was cited for fighting off “cynical attacks to repeal state renewable portfolio standards.” Brownback’s motive likely was more economic than environmental, as energy standards and wind tax credits have helped fuel billions of dollars of investment in wind projects in Kansas in the past few years.

Could water planning be Brownback’s legacy?

To his credit, Gov. Sam Brownback continues to press for visionary action on water, calling last week for administration officials and community and business leaders to come together on a 50-year plan by next November. Speaking at the Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas in Manhattan, he singled out sustaining the Ogallala Aquifer and the state reservoirs as “top-of-the-barrel” challenges. “This is not to cast aspersions on anybody,” the governor said, according to the Salina Journal. “This is where we are. Work together and work it out. We have to solve a problem.” Solving that problem would make water planning rival tax cutting as Brownback’s legacy.

Transmission lines key to surge in wind power

One of the reasons why Kansas was slow to tap its wind-energy potential was that it lacked the infrastructure to transmit that power to energy markets. But thanks to the work spearheaded by former Gov. Mark Parkinson, which the Brownback administration has admirable continued, new transmission lines are helping move power both across Kansas and out of state. The Kansas Corporation Commission approved last week the route for a new 60-mile transmission line in north central Kansas being developed by ITC Great Plains and Mid-Kansas Electric Company. New transmission lines – along with the state’s renewable energy standards, which Parkinson also spearheaded – are a key reason why the amount of wind energy generating capacity in Kansas more than doubled in 2012, boosting Kansas into the top 10 states for wind power.

Curbing water use would have big impact on aquifer

If current irrigation trends continue, 69 percent of the groundwater stored in the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas will be depleted in 50 years, according to a new study published by David Steward, a professor of civil engineering at Kansas State University, and other K-State researchers. But the hopeful news is that immediately reducing water use could extend the aquifer’s life through the year 2110. “We really wrote the paper for the family farmer who wants to pass his land on to his grandchildren knowing that they will have the same opportunities that farmers do today,” Steward said in a news release. “As a society, we have an opportunity to make some important decisions that will have consequences for future generations, who may or may not be limited by those decisions.”

Kansas lawmakers speak out against new pollution rules

It isn’t surprising that Kansas GOP lawmakers oppose President Obama’s move this week to increase regulation of carbon-dioxide emissions. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said that Obama’s plan would “do little to curb emissions at great cost to the American workforce. And states like ours – Kansas – which rely upon coal for electricity and have a large manufacturing base would be especially hurt.” Moran contends that the regulations will drive business overseas, which wouldn’t reduce worldwide CO2 emissions. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, said he wants a “more prosperous America, one that can take care of its environment and utilize its abundant resources. I only wish the president would agree.”

Four years later and no new coal plant

One of the first acts of Gov. Mark Parkinson’s brief administration was a May 2009 deal to allow an 895-megawatt coal-fired power plant to be built near Holcomb. The agreement, which ended a nasty political fight, also led to long-sought clean-energy initiatives in Kansas including a renewable portfolio standard. That RPS lives on, surviving an attempted legislative rollback just this year. But the power plant remains unbuilt and recently took another legal blow, when a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected Sunflower Electric Power Corp.’s request to overturn a lower court ruling that had stalled the plant’s construction. Now, Sunflower CEO Stuart Lowry told the Garden City Telegram, “the question will be whether or not additional approvals will be required and, if so, what the scope of the environmental impact study will be.” There are other legal hurdles. And after four years it’s fair to wonder whether the plant will ever be financed and built, or whether the market for the power still exists. But Lowry argued: “The cost to date and the foreseeable cost are clearly outweighed by the benefits, even today.”

When groundwater runs out, it’s gone for good

The wet spring is helping alleviate the drought in parts of Kansas. But as a recent New York Times article noted, lack of water is still a major problem for western Kansas farmers who depend on irrigation. “In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry,” the Times reported. “In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers. And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains.”

House leader promotes anti-climate-change book she didn’t read

Kansas House Speaker Pro Tem Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, initially said she didn’t recall writing the letter on her office stationery that was sent along with an anti-climate-change book to the homes of Kansas House members. But she later confirmed that she wrote the letter endorsing the book, which she has not read. Parts of Mast’s endorsement were taken almost word for word from a Publishers Weekly review of the book, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported. The book, “The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism,” was distributed by the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think tank funded in part by Charles and David Koch.

Oil sands also create dirty waste product

One environmental concern about piping Canada’s oil sands to U.S. refineries is all the petroleum coke that will be left over from the refining process. The Environmental Protection Agency no longer allows new licensing permits for burning the high-sulfur, high-carbon waste product, the New York Times reported. As a result, most petroleum coke is sold to Mexico and China, which don’t have as many pollution rules. Companies associated with Koch Industries and Bill Koch are leading exporters of the product. Another concern is where to store the petroleum coke before it is exported. The Times reported on a three-story pile of petroleum coke that covers an entire city block in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit.

Plan now to avoid more fish kills, fines

Remember the 850 dead fish. If that falls short as a rallying cry for upgrading Wichita’s sewer and water infrastructure, though, city leaders need only recall the sting of the $243,195 state fine for the 2012 sewage release that killed those fish in the Arkansas River. And the city got off easy this time, because KDHE let what would have been another $455,000 fine be spent instead on a citywide study of deferred sewer maintenance. The $11 million the city has banked for sewer repairs this year and next is great as far as it goes. But as Mayor Carl Brewer warned in his State of the City address this year, the city will need $2.1 billion over the next 30 years to maintain or replace the majority of its water, sewer and storm-drainage systems. Brewer and the rest of the City Council need to find the money and political will soon to tackle this long-term challenge, so more fish kills and fines can be avoided.

Pro-con: Should U.S. boost energy exploration?

Can increasing American energy exploration improve our economy? Yes, but more to the point, it’s already happening. Energy – and the jobs and growth it will drive – is the foundation for our economic recovery. Our nation is blessed with some of the most abundant energy resources on Earth. Thanks in large part to the technology-driven shale boom, we have enough natural gas to power America for 120 years. We also have at least 200 years of oil under our lands and off our shores and more than 250 years of coal. And that’s just what we can recover with today’s technology. With continued advancements, we will be able to access even greater domestic supplies in the future. Energy presents the biggest opportunity to build a stronger foundation and a brighter future for our country. The 21st century has brought America an era of energy abundance. Let’s make the most of it for the sake of our economy, competitiveness and national security. – Karen A. Harbert, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Abandoning fossil-fuel exploration altogether is not feasible for America. But significant further government support of oil and gas drilling in places like the Alaskan wilderness or the American heartland in the name of economic growth would be a huge mistake. Instead, for our national security, economic growth and a sound energy policy, what we need is to shift to promoting industries and technologies that focus on clean, renewable and alternative sources of energy. Clean-tech is a fast-growing global industry that holds the potential to fix our current climate and other environmental challenges and build the jobs of tomorrow. The 2010 BP oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and the serious concerns raised about hydraulic fracturing have not merely been the results of chance. Nor are the extreme storms, droughts and heat waves, which are expected to rise in frequency and severity with fossil fuel use-linked climate change. The U.S. cannot afford to invest and lock itself into many more decades of reliance on the dirty and unsustainable sources of energy of the past. – Tseming Yang, Santa Clara University

Evaporation a bigger threat than lack of precipitation

As bad as the current drought is, that may not be the biggest water challenge facing the state. “It’s going to get warmer, which leads to more evaporation and transpiration,” Johannes Feddema, a climatologist and chairman of the University of Kansas geography department, said at a recent symposium in Lawrence on the future of water in Kansas. The changing climate will require farmers and others to reduce their demand for water, symposium panelists said.

Kansans unafraid of ‘sustainability planning’

Despite attempts by some local officials to portray “sustainability planning” as a United Nations plot to make us all ride bicycles and live in high-rise apartments, Kansans aren’t scared of it. In fact, 75 percent of those surveyed in a new Kansas Policy Institute poll agreed that communities should work with the Environmental Protection Agency and local groups to plan a “sustainable community.” This includes 62 percent of conservatives. What’s more, 65 percent of Kansans surveyed said that they wanted their federal and local tax dollars used to develop such plans.

Disconnect on global warming

An area of Arctic sea ice bigger than the United States melted this year, and ice cover reached “a new record low” in the area around the North Pole, according to a report released this week by the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization. Droughts covered nearly two-thirds of the United States this year, as well as western Russia and southern Europe. The Arkansas River in Wichita (in photo) is at its second-lowest level in the 78 years the United States Geological Survey has been keeping records, and the Mississippi River is so low that it is halting some barge traffic. Climate scientists are predicting more devastating storms like Hurricane Sandy due to shifting weather and air patterns caused by global warming. Meanwhile, the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank funded heavily by oil companies, is working with the American Legislative Exchange Council to write model legislation for states such as Kansas to repeal renewable-energy mandates.

Will Obama approve Keystone XL after all?

“We believe the White House will reverse course and approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would ship crude from Canada’s western oil sands to the Gulf Coast,” ratings agency Moody’s predicted Monday. Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, told the Financial Times that the pipeline “will be a threshold test as to how serious the president is about producing America’s oil and natural gas.” But environmentalists want President Obama to make permanent his delay of the permit for the northern section of the pipeline, as a way to show he intends to tackle climate change. Noting that Obama’s victory speech mentioned an “America not threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” Bill McKibben wrote in the Washington Post that “if he really gets that this is the legacy issue of all legacy issues, one that stretches out into geologic time, then he’ll listen to the scientists and not the lobbyists. Keystone is his first best chance to help keep serious quantities of carbon out of the atmosphere.” Moody’s report on Obama’s second term also cautioned that regulatory scrutiny may increase for hydraulic fracturing and remain strict over deepwater exploration.

Fluoride campaign rejected by those it aimed to help

Though fluoridated water would have benefited everyone,  the focus of the pro-fluoride campaign in Wichita was primarily low-income children, who have the most dental problems. So a map in Thursday’s Eagle of voting results in Wichita was striking. Some of the areas of the city that have the highest percentage of low-income children had the least support for fluoridation.

Brownback showing leadership on water

Kansas faces long-term challenges relating to the supply and quality of water, especially in meeting the demands of the energy industry and agriculture. Good for Gov. Sam Brownback for hosting a Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas on Tuesday and Wednesday in Manhattan, featuring speakers including Sen. Pat Roberts and Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Among the key questions on the table – how to conserve and extend the Ogallala Aquifer. The governor has done good work on water policy so far in his term, this year repealing the 67-year-old “use-it-or-lose-it” policy. He and other state leaders will need to continue to be foresighted and collaborative to ensure Kansas has the water it needs far into the future.

Lawmakers, counties concerned about veto of environmental funds

State lawmakers and county officials voiced concern last week about Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of $750,000 in state funding for a program that protects drinking water, the Lawrence Journal-World reported. State Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, chairwoman of the Legislative Budget Committee, described the elimination of the program that helps local health departments inspect and monitor wastewater and water systems as “short-term conservatism versus long-term conservatism.” Other lawmakers complained that the state was off-loading costs on local governments, which may either raise fees or cut corners. Reno County, for example, has raised the fee to install a wastewater system from $90 to $275.

Clean-air goal is good; timetable rushed

The Environmental Protection Agency’s goal of reducing the pollution that blows from one state to another is good. But it overstepped its authority with its Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, a U.S. appeals court decided Tuesday. The timetable for implementing the rule also seemed too fast and could have forced some energy companies to shut down power plants or triggered rolling blackouts. There was also some confusion about how the mandate would work. Westar Energy officials told The Eagle editorial board last year that they were already reducing pollution but would have trouble meeting the EPA’s timeline. Kansas delegation members were adamantly opposed to the rule and to the EPA.  “I am pleased the court identified the EPA as exactly what it is – an overreaching and out-of-control bureaucracy, intent on forcing President Obama’s green agenda upon Americans,” Rep. Mike Pompeo said in a statement.