In Lamar, complaints about the plant tended to be less abstract than carping about design flaws and rate increases. Flanked by houses and a rail line, the plant is a Rube Goldberg-like network of storage domes, steeply pitched conveyor systems, a giant boiler and turbines; part of it actually straddles Maple Street, the throughway to Riverside Cemetery. The stark presence of the thing — from the many disturbances of its drawn-out construction period to the bi-weekly clatter of the long coal trains ambling into town, to the booms and bangs and incessant hum and bursts of ammoniac smells — is inescapable. Other cities could break from ARPA, but the citizens of Lamar could not get a divorce from the plant.

Lamar Light and Power hosted a public meeting at the town's Cow Palace early in the process to explain the plan, but dissent at that point was muted. "They put on a dog-and-pony show, and everything was going to be wonderful, according to them," recalls Verdell Howard. "At that point, most of us had not done much research. A couple of people did object, but it looked like it was already a done deal."

Howard was active in a grassroots group called Concerned Citizens of Lamar that had managed to amend the city charter in order to thwart a campaign to bring a private prison to town. One provision of the charter, she knew, stated that the city couldn't sell, lease or otherwise dispose of any public utility without a public vote. Yet, under the terms of the repowering agreement, LLP had committed existing facilities to ARPA for the next forty years, as well as vacant land for construction of the coal storage domes and other equipment, and ARPA had issued bonds — all without any vote of the citizens.

Lola Shrimplin
Cliff Warren lives two blocks from Lamar's power plant, the scene of occasional "opacity incidents" related to the handling of coal ash.
Lola Shrimplin
Cliff Warren lives two blocks from Lamar's power plant, the scene of occasional "opacity incidents" related to the handling of coal ash.

"If they're going to issue bonds to raise the kind of money this project is going to cost, you're damn right I want to vote on it," says Lamar resident Wayne Stokke. "I don't think you can find too many places in the United State where the people didn't have a chance to vote on something like this."

Stokke came to Lamar 32 years ago as a high-school principal. In some circles, he's still considered a newcomer, "a snot-nosed educator who doesn't know anything," he says. Years ago, he got involved in efforts to do something about the high rate of respiratory problems among children and the elderly in the area, which has been blamed on the dusty feedlots surrounding the town, only to have a local feedlot operator tell him that the air was "green."

"He was referring to money — his money," Stokke recalls. "And we're going to add coal dust to this? What are we doing?"

Attorneys for LLP contend that the "dedication" of city-owned resources to ARPA, which was approved by a resolution signed by Lamar's mayor, isn't a violation of the city charter. A federal magistrate recently dismissed the we-didn't-get-to-vote claim from the citizen lawsuit, ruling that it properly belonged in state court. According to the legal team representing Howard and the Warrens, no decision has been made yet about whether the charter issue will be pursued in addition to the Clean Air Act claims.

"There's always a little bit of a disconnect between what the legal claims are in a case like this and what it's about from the perspective of people living in the shadow of a coal-fired power plant," says Michael Harris, director of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law's environmental-law clinic. "But the case is still about building a coal-fired plant in the middle of Lamar, less than a mile from five schools."

Even without the charter issue, Stokke, Howard and others opposing the plant have had plenty of work to do. Shirley Warren, Cliff's mother, has snapped pictures of ominous discharges from the stack and piles of fly ash on the property that seem ill-contained. "The wind blows, and where the ash goes, nobody knows," she says.

Rigel acknowledges that the plant has had an occasional "opacity incident," in which fugitive ash escapes the premises, but says such incidents are rare. ARPA assured residents that coal dust would be strictly contained. The company invested in elaborate systems to convey the crushed coal snugly to the boiler, as well as equipment designed to minimize the sulfur and particulates emitted by the plant.

Shirley Warren isn't convinced the systems work as well as the company claims. "We have odors so bad it burns your nose and throat," she says. "We've found black particles covering our cars. Every time somebody calls me, I'm over there taking pictures. The steam and smoke has been so thick sometimes that it's like driving through a London fog."

A few months ago, Shirley's husband, Charles, began knocking on doors and gathering signatures for a petition to send to Governor Ritter, protesting the plant. "The majority of people I met were against it," he says. "They'd say, 'I didn't vote for the thing.' But quite a few of them, especially if they worked for the city, wouldn't sign the petition. They were afraid of repercussions."

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