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Asthma a concern for power plant opponents

by Mark Vasto
Landmark reporter

By his own admission, Vince Magers and his family moved to Platte County from Jackson County four years ago for the county's great schools, parks, trails and green space. The answer to any prospective homeowner's dreams, he valued the good neighborhoods and their rising property values.

Now, faced with the prospect of Great Plains Energy's power plant expansion in the area, Magers—who lives in the Kansas City portion of Platte County—says he has one burning question: "What good is any of that if the air isn't fit to breathe?”

For while both Magers' wife and 10-year old son were diagnosed with asthma before moving to the county, Magers claims that since moving to Platte County the frequency and severity of their asthma attacks has gotten worse.

"My wife never used an inhaler before moving here, and now she takes one everywhere and uses it regularly," Magers said. "Before moving here my son had an inhaler but rarely had to use it. Now he has to take it everywhere he goes. As a parent, there's nothing that scares you more than seeing your child struggling to breathe.”

Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease that makes breathing difficult. In general, asthma is caused when an irritant affects the lungs, causing the body to release a mass amount of antibodies, thus jamming the bronchial cavity and making it hard to draw in enough oxygen to replenish the body.

Asthma has many triggers - including genetics, second-hand tobacco smoke, mold, dander and stress - although air pollution has recently been singled out as a significant cause of the disease.

"There is an association between asthma symptoms and ground level ozone, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter," explained Dr. Jay Portnoy, section chief of allergy, asthma and immunology at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. Coal-fired power plants, such as the ones being proposed in Platte County, are considered to be a leading cause of such pollutants in the environment.

"The second most common reason for visiting Children's Mercy is for asthma, the first reason being premature birth," Dr. Portnoy said. "The second most common reason for an emergency room trip is asthma, the first is the common cold.”

Dr. Portnoy said that in addition to health risks, asthma presents real financial and social impacts on communities as well. He cited a recent study by the American Lung Association which asserted there were nearly 80,000 cases of asthma in the Kansas City region, 23,500 of which belonged to children. He said the annual cost of medical care for asthma in the region was approximately $34 million and that the individual cost per child varied due to varying health plans.

Dr. Portnoy said that while Kansas City's air was generally clean, he said the increase in air pollution led many more in the region to feel sicker than people would in other, more polluted areas, like Orange County, California.

"There they are used to being sick (as a result of air pollution) so they probably don't notice it as much," Dr. Portnoy said. "Here, we're used to being well, so we're more aware when we're not.”

Dr. Portnoy acknowledged the advances made in power plant environmental controls. He speculated that Platte County would be better off with the new power plant, and getting rid of the existing older power plant at Iatan.

"Anything you can do to reduce the particulate matter would be good for public health," Dr. Portnoy said.

With a second child on the way in May, Magers said he and his wife are concerned about the effects air pollution may have on an infant. Like many other residents, he expressed frustration with the lack of facts on the matter coming from Great Plains Power and its sister company, KCP&L.

"Kansas City Power & Light has always presented itself as a hometown Kansas City company. To me, that means they owe it to the people of this community to complete a detailed health assessment of the risks posed by two large coal-fired plants," Magers said. "We're not scientists, but common sense tells you two plants of the size they have proposed can only worsen air quality.”

More than 100 area residents attended two awareness sessions hosted by the Concerned Citizens of Platte County in Camden Point and Leavenworth over the past week. Many of the people who came to the meetings echoed Magers' call for a detailed assessment. Although sources have told The Landmark that Great Plains Power had representatives at the meetings, nobody from the company addressed the crowd on the matter. Great Plains failed to return phone calls placed to their "24-hour media hotline" in time for this article.

Currently, Great Plains Power has only offered environmental assessments (EA's), and not full blown environmental impact statements (EIS's) on the power plant project. EA's are typically 10-15 pages in length and are generally used by regulatory agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources and Army Corps of Engineers to determine whether or not an EIS is warranted. Significantly, an EA must be made available for public inspection (typically at local libraries) but not public comment.

An EIS would also force Great Plains Power to consider secondary and cumulative effects of the power plant. According to the Department of Energy, secondary impacts are those effects that are expected to be "caused" by the proposed action but are later in time or are removed in distance, but are still reasonably foreseeable. Concerned area residents are hoping this section would contain information on assorted health risks.

The deal made between Platte County and Great Plains Power does technically hinge on the environmental soundness of the project, but the language does not spell out what Great Plains Power must do to satisfy the demand.

County Commissioner Steve Wegner said that the county had to leverage the resources of the government when considering such a project.

"Those people have a passion for what they're doing, they just want to do it right, according to statutes, and I hope they'll steer us in the right direction," Wegner told The Landmark. "The county doesn't have the expertise or the financial wherewithal that the state has in this matter. The state is the permit holder -- not the county.”

Wegner said the county could not by law put more demands on Great Plains Power than was required by the state, essentially making it illegal to require an EIS from them. When asked if the commission would request such a study in good faith from Great Plains Power, Wegner said he was unsure if they would. He did promise to take action if an assessment did come back with an excessively negative outlook.

"If there came a study that said 'this is gonna kill Platte Countians,' no commissioner would sign off on that," Wegner said.

Wegner also expressed surprise at the media coverage of the proposed plant and concerned citizens such as Magers who have become increasingly vocal as of late.

"What I want to know is, why haven't they been protesting the Iatan plant like crazy for the past 20 somewhat years?"


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