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How Politics, Misinformation and Money Fueled a Power Plant in Kentucky's Coal Country

Photographer: Frankie Steele

HAZARD, Ky.—Up a steep dirt road, atop a former strip-mine, sits a concrete slab roughly 30 feet square. It’s the only visible sign that a wood-burning, electricity-generating plant could someday occupy this remote industrial park.Supporters say the biomass plant, 11 miles northwest of Hazard, would be an economic godsend for Perry County, creating hundreds of jobs and pumping millions of dollars into the heart of poverty-plagued Appalachian Kentucky.And they contend that the plant would be environmentally friendly and its emissions carbon neutral, unlike coal mining, the longtime backbone of the region’s economy, which is now on the wane.Despite the sense of optimism surrounding these claims by politicians and other proponents, however, the reality is much murkier.Assertions of a job-creation windfall and “green” energy resulting from the billion-dollar project appear to be doubtful at best, an investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting has found.And a review of several thousand pages of documents and dozens of interviews by KyCIR raised questions about whether political maneuvering crucial to the project’s success so far has sacrificed the public good to benefit a few.Among KyCIR’s findings:* EcoPower Generation-Hazard, LLC, the company behind the plant, and state Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard, successfully pushed through a new state law giving the project special treatment.Their efforts included misleading letters of support, signed by Smith and several other prominent eastern Kentucky politicians. Later, Smith received thousands of dollars in campaign donations from people associated with the company.* The ecoPower plant would have an overall negative effect on the region’s strapped economy, according to the only analysis performed. Among other things, the average residential customer’s annual electricity bill would increase by more than $100.* The plant’s emissions generally would be as polluting, and as harmful to environmental and human health, as those from coal-fired facilities that are being phased out to combat global warming, according to scientific research. Read more about the Hazard biomass plant plan in this story from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

R.G. Dunlop is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms. Email R.G. at rdunlop@lpm.org.