JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Legislation designed to keep Aquila Inc. from having to tear down a power plant in Cass County is facing widespread criticism.
In its first public hearing Wednesday, the bill met opposition from government officials, consumer advocates, environmentalists, the Missouri Municipal League and the group of Cass County residents who have fought the plant since it was built in 2005 without local zoning permits.
They told lawmakers on the House Special Committee on Utilities that approving the bill, which is being pushed at Aquila's behest, would set a bad precedent by undermining the rule of law and rewarding the company for not following the proper procedures to get the plant built.
"They have come down here to have you guys pull some sneaky-dog way of doing something the courts have said they couldn't do," said Gary Mallory, Cass County's presiding commissioner.
The comments were enough to persuade committee Chairman Ed Emery, who wanted to vote on the bill immediately and is the bill's sponsor, to delay a vote until Thursday at the earliest.
The legislation would expand the powers of the Missouri Public Service Commission, allowing the regulatory body to approve the construction of utility improvements, even after they're already built.
If passed, the legislation would effectively overturn an appellate court's decision last month that the commission overstepped its authority by giving its blessing in 2006 to the already constructed $140 million plant. Aquila has appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court but would face having to remove the plant if the court doesn't take up the case or rules against the company.
Jon Empson, Aquila's senior vice president in charge of regulated operations, estimated that tearing down the plant would cost $20 million and rebuilding it elsewhere would cost another $75 million. He said the company was frustrated that it hadn't been able to work out an agreement with nearby residents to save the plant, which provides power during peak summer periods.
"We're now in the 11th hour," he said.
Empson apologized for not getting the community involved before construction on the plant began but said Aquila was trying to provide low-cost energy, and company attorneys believed its state-issued certificate didn't require local approval.
Some of the panel members were unconvinced, however.
"You ignored a permanent injunction not to build the thing," said Rep. Jake Zimmerman, D-St. Louis County, who claimed Aquila lobbyists misled him about what the bill's purpose. "How can you say you weren't warned and had no idea this was coming ... The definition of chutzpah is killing both your parents, then pleading for leniency because you are an orphan. Your actions showed a tremendous amount of chutzpah."
Emery, R-Lamar, had attempted to cut short questions on the bill and put it to a vote, but other lawmakers asked for a delay, saying the measure needed a full hearing.
Cass County resident John Coffman said the plant's noise and smell has reduced property values for nearby residents and makes it impossible to have outdoor conversations when it's running.
State Public Counsel Lewis Mills, who advocates for consumers in regulatory cases, said the bill would go against a century of precedent and laws governing public utilities. He said it was too much trouble to help Aquila out of a self-inflicted crisis.
Mallory noted that every court decision has gone against Aquila. Only the PSC has sided with the utility, which he said showed how cozy the regulators are to utilities, and yet the legislators were looking to expand that group's authority.
"Why would you do this?" he asked. "Why can't you side with the people? This isn't right."
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com