Black out: Lamar gets steamed over a troubled coal plant -- right in the middle of town

Cliff Warren is a man who minds his own business. That's what he was doing around 1 a.m. one night in July last year, the night of the Big Incident. Fact is, he was snoozing in his bedroom in Lamar, a flat farm town of 8,900 people 200 miles southeast of Denver.

The problem, he says, was that the folks over at Lamar Light and Power weren't minding their business. One moment he's fast asleep, the next he's upright in bed, startled and confused, clutching his head and wondering if the roar in his ears is the result of an explosion outside or something worse.

"It sounded like a jet plane just went through my house," he remembers. "I thought I was dreaming. My head was going nuts."

Warren looked outside. No flames, just that ear-splitting noise. Furious, he threw on some clothes and went to check on the one piece of machinery in Lamar capable of making such a racket: the new coal-fired power plant, located two blocks from Warren's house and just three blocks from the town's main drag.

Other people had the same idea. Before long, a small crowd of alarmed, panicky or simply angry residents had gathered outside the plant's fence, cursing the infernal noise and demanding to know what was going on. The plant employees running around didn't seem much calmer, nor did they seem inclined to stop and chat.

"We kept trying to get answers," Warren says. "Do we evacuate or not? Everybody's scared to death, not knowing what to do. I called 911, just so we could get an officer there and get some answers. But no officer responded to the scene at all."

A gate abruptly slid open; Warren considered it an invitation to go on in. He and another man caught up with one of the plant workers for a ten-second discussion. "He said, 'We're trying to get it under control,'" Warren recalls. "Next thing we know, we're being pushed out of there by three guys."

Warren spotted two city police officers, a state trooper and a Prowers County sheriff's deputy parked a block away. He walked over to ask why they hadn't responded to his call about the plant.

One of them shook his head. "We're not going down there," he said, as if the situation demanded an elite unit with high-tech gear, well beyond the scope of local law enforcement.

The noise dissipated. So did the crowd. Lamar Light and Power officials would later explain that the plant, which had first gone online two months earlier and was still in a start-up stage, had "tripped" unexpectedly. The roar was simply the venting of steam through a pressure-relief valve, which would require further modifications to reduce the noise.

Yet for some locals, the incident was truly a wake-up call. There would be many more late-night disturbances related to the relief valve; while the plant superintendent insists the problem is now solved, residents say hardly a week goes by without at least one noisy eruption. They complain that the plant hisses and pops, booms and bangs, and radiates a steady, annoying hum.

At one point, Warren borrowed a decibel reader from a friend and tried to gauge the noise level. The device registered 116 decibels just beyond the fence line and 86 decibels at his house — well in excess of permitted limits. He tried to file a noise complaint with the Lamar Police Department, but he says the officer was uncertain how to proceed, since the alleged violator is a municipal utility that boasts of being "publicly owned since 1920."

"It's not just the noise," Warren adds. "We've got clean-air issues, and that's serious. I have asthma, and I'm concerned how it's going to be down the line and whether my grandkids can even visit me here safely."

In fact, the sheer noise of having a coal plant in their back yard is probably one of the lesser concerns raised by Lamar residents over the past two years. They talk about pungent, eye-stinging odors wafting from the facility, piles of coal ash harried by the wind, and soot on their cars and houses; about fire trucks responding to a "combustion problem" in the 110-car coal train that unloads at the plant every couple of weeks; about construction and engineering issues that have doubled the estimated cost to build the plant, from an initial projection of $66 million to a figure somewhere between $122 million and $140 million; about the numerous toxic emissions, including mercury, selenium, dioxin and hydrochloric acid, that are associated with coal-fired plants.

Most of all, they wonder how the decision was made by public agencies to convert the town's aging power source, which for thirty years used natural gas to generate electricity, into a coal-burner — without locals having any real say about the matter. The deal for the Lamar Repowering Project was struck between Lamar Light and Power (LLP), which owns and operates the facility, and the Arkansas River Power Authority, which issued bonds to finance the conversion and plans to funnel power from it to Lamar and five other southern Colorado towns served by ARPA. It had the blessing of city officials, but no public vote.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast