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Rod Bremby: The Man Who Put a Red State on the Green Map

Secretary Bremby is the first person in U.S. history to deny permits for coal plants on the basis of CO2 emissions, causing a flurry in Kansas.

Roderick Bremby, Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, is a force of nature. He stood up to big coal interests in Kansas and, quite simply, said "no." Secretary Bremby is the first person in U.S. history to deny permits for coal plants on the basis of carbon dioxide emissions, setting a precedent for similar rulings across the country. (Read more about the decision here or watch Bremby break it down here).

This was no easy feat. Since the permits were first denied in October 2007, there has been relentless pressure from the coal lobby and state legislature to not only overturn the ruling but restrict Bremby's authority to oversee future plants. Bremby and his extremely supportive boss Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a current front-runner for the U.S. Secretary of Health position, have not backed down. Both recognize the major environmental repercussions of the proposed plants, which would belch out about 11 million tons of carbon dioxide a year and would be the largest new source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Because climate change doesn't honor state boundaries, what happens in the middle of the country will impact the edges and beyond.

Secretary Bremby has been on our eco-hero list for quite some time. Last week he released guidelines for the permitting of new electricity plants, serving as a bridge between his last ruling and any future legislation. This prompted us to reach out for more insight into Bremby's landmark decision, highly charged in a state that gets three-fourths of its energy from coal.

Simran Sethi: Secretary Bremby, you made history with your ruling against the coal plant permits for Holcomb, KS.

Roderick Bremby: Some days it doesn't feel that way.

SS: This has got to be challenging. You clearly have a long-term commitment to health and the environment--from your research at KUto your work in local government in Lawrence. What's informed your commitment to healthy community development?

RB: I've never sought political office or have been overly partisan while working in a council-manager or commission-manager form of government. We were taught in graduate school that there was no Democratic or Republican way to take out the trash, and I learned to be as efficient and effective in the provision of public service. In my work in local government, youth development was an overlooked local service issue. It caused me to take a look at prevention issues. I began to see how local government wasn't giving enough attention to prevention or early intervention.

SS: You oversee the regulation of health and environmental entities ranging from hospitals to feedlots and from laboratories to landfills. The work that's gotten you the most attention was your October 2007 decision to deny permits for two new 700-megawatt coal-fired power plants proposed by Sunflower Electric, on the grounds that the 11 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from the plants would negatively affect health. That decision was supported by the April 2007 Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, which established carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

You said, "I believe it would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing."

RB: I'm not a scientist by training, but we have at our fingertips results from the nation's best scientists and the international community. Scientists are by nature skeptical, yet they have stated our impacts on climate change are unequivocal. We have to be responsive to that. I felt that a permit that would stand for 40-50 years should not be taken lightly. I couldn't ignore the emerging information concerning climate change.

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