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Zoning board approves site plan for Kanab coal plant

By John Hollenhorst | Posted - May 18, 2011 at 6:52 p.m.

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KANAB — Residents of Kanab are divided over one of the hottest local issues in years: whether to build an experimental plant that converts coal into gas.

It's a concept that's supposed to be "green," but it has some environmentally-minded people turning against it.

In theory, a coal gasification plant produces a clean-burning "synthetic" gas that would be friendlier to the environment than the emissions from burning coal. The proposed location for the plant is within Kanab city limits, in an open area just north of the Arizona border.

What is ... gasification?
Gasification is a process that converts carbonaceous materials, such as coal, petroleum, biofuel, or biomass, into carbon monoxide and hydrogen by reacting the raw material at high temperatures with a controlled amount of oxygen and/or steam. The resulting gas mixture is called syngas (from synthesis gas) and is itself a fuel. -Wikipedia

A citizens group has sprung up to oppose it. "There's 11 national parks or monuments within an hour and a half of here," said Kanab resident Roger Hoverman. "It doesn't make sense to put an R&D coal plant right here, right in front of everybody."

But the proposal has strong defenders too. "We need some kind of industry," said Gwendolyn Gaustad, who lives near Kanab. "We need something here to help keep our youth here."

The plant is being promoted by businessman James Guthrie. His background is in real estate development, but he's also president of a company called Viresco Energy based in Riverside, California.

Guthrie has already obtained a federal grant of $2.4 million for the experimental plant. Now he's working on getting approval to build on the site in Kanab.

A meeting of the Kanab Planning and Zoning Board drew well over 100 residents, deeply polarized over the issue.

Kanab resident Joan Thatcher said, "I own a small business and I have talked to a lot of people over the last few months; and I've only talked to one or two people that want a coal gasification plant in Kanab."

If you want to go green, you've got to have the technology. You've got to develop it, and it's got to be done somewhere." -Gwendolyn Gaustad, Kanab area resident

But Gaustad took the opposite view. "If you want to go green, you've got to have the technology," he said. "You've got to develop it, and it's got to be done somewhere."

Guthrie plans a small-scale pilot plant that would only operate a few days in it's first six months, processing about five tons of coal each day.

The coal would be mixed with hydrogen and steam and cooked under pressure. During the demonstration phase, the synthetic gas would not be captured but would simply be burned on site.

Guthrie said the only emission from the burning would be carbon dioxide. If the plant ever goes to full-scale commercial operation, toxic pollutants would be captured on site, he said. In theory, it would be a net plus for the environment.

"I think our property values are going to go down," Thatcher said, "and I think it's going to be a health hazard."

Kanab resident Mac Robinson supports it. "Our lawn mowers and Weed Eaters are going to develop more pollution than this plant ever could," he said.

The board approved Guthrie's site plan but held off on issuing a conditional use permit until they get more information about possible odors from the plant.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy is launching an environmental review process. The agency already approved the federal grant to build the plant. Now DOE has to decide whether Kanab is the right place to build it.


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