Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced this summer that Kansas won a competition for a $4 billion Panasonic Corp. vehicle battery manufacturing facility to be built at the old Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant at De Soto. The battery plant is expected to create 4,000 jobs and have an annual economic impact on the state of $2.5 billion. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)
By Dave Kendall
In April 1978, I attended the New Earth Exposition in San Francisco, which a feature article in the Stanford Daily described as “a giant festival of alternatives in the fields of energy, transportation, housing, food and lifestyle.”
The gathering revolved around the theme “Living Lightly on the Earth.” I took home a T-shirt with those words emblazoned over a bucolic scene featuring an electricity producing windmill (no resemblance to today’s wind generators) and plenty of sunbeams. I wore that shirt until it became a holey relic.
Jimmy Carter occupied the White House at the time. He put solar panels on the roof to signify support for renewable energy and concern for the environment. Even his predecessor — Richard Nixon — presided over a nation that witnessed the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air Act, as well as the first Earth Day.
We had been inspired by the first images of Earth from space, with the awareness that this beautiful blue orb was being abused and polluted. Many realized we needed to do a better job of taking care of it and stewarding its resources.
Inspired by mythologist Joseph Campbell, George Lucas — the creator of 1977’s “Star Wars” — developed a filmic mythos featuring a “Force” that brings oneself into alignment with the natural flow of the universe. It seemed as though, metaphorically, we were indeed forging a new relationship with the Earth.
And then “the Empire” struck back with a vengeance.
After Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in 1980, the federal government’s role in addressing environmental concerns quickly reversed.
“Government is not the solution to our problems,” Reagan declared in his inaugural address. “Government IS the problem.”
That sentiment resonates with many Americans today, long after Reagan had the solar panels removed from the roof of the White House.
Republicans, in particular, have staunchly defended the notion that the government should not be too assertive or regulatory (with some exceptions). In the U.S. Senate, they have uniformly opposed efforts to deal with a growing threat to our biosphere.
Even with mountains of scientific evidence indicating that our planet is dealing with something much more menacing and overarching than the environmental threats spotlighted in the ’70s, we have not been able to make any significant progress in addressing it.
By “it” I mean the “multiple cascading crises” associated with the warming of the planet due to greenhouse gasses we expel into the atmosphere. (That phrase comes from a new book written by Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen: “An Inconvenient Apocalypse.”)
We have known about the growing threat posed by greenhouse gasses for decades. NASA climate scientist James Hansen sounded the alarm in testimony to Congress in June of 1988, before the end of the Reagan Administration.
”Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming,” he said. ”It is already happening now.”
That was more than three decades ago. And, thanks to forces that wish to perpetuate the status quo, remaining in denial of what science tells us, we have not been able to come together in a meaningful way to address the matter.
So it really is momentous that Congress finally managed to pass legislation investing significant resources into efforts to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses we generate.
On Aug. 16, President Biden signed the groundbreaking bill that will provide incentives for such things as the purchase of electric vehicles, or EVs.
All those EVs will need batteries. And that’s why Panasonic’s plan to build a new manufacturing plant in northeastern Kansas appears to be quite timely.
It would not be happening, of course, without a bipartisan effort involving the consent of Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature who supported Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to attract new “megaprojects” to the state.
The plant will be constructed on land near De Soto previously occupied by Sunflower Ordnance Works, also referred to as Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, which at one point in time was said to be the world’s largest plant for manufacturing smokeless gunpowder.
In a story broadcast in the 2007 season of KTWU’s “Sunflower Journeys,” producer Jim Kelly explored the history of the plant, noting that it consisted of more than 2,000 buildings covering about 10,000 acres and employing more than 12,000 workers at its peak.
Kathy Daniels, then a curator at the Johnson County Museum, explained to Jim Kelly that plant was authorized in February of 1942, not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the U.S. into the Second World War.
More than 100 farm families were displaced by the plant as its large footprint included a buffer zone to insulate surrounding residents from accidental explosions. A tiny town called Prairie Center was also subsumed in the land acquisition and almost all of its buildings destroyed. Such were deemed to be necessary sacrifices for the success of the war effort.
With housing in short supply, the federal government built Sunflower Village on site to accommodate some of the workforce, with the first apartments opening in August 1943.
“Sunflower was indeed an entire community,” Daniels noted. “It had its own police force. It had its own power plant. It provided its own water. It had its own fire department and eventually its own hospital.”
The construction of Sunflower Village, however, did not eliminate all the demands placed upon De Soto and surrounding communities. Living space was still hard to come by, and the influx of new families put a strain on schools. Enrollment at the elementary school in De Soto, which totaled 88 students prior to the war, grew to 346 in 1942-43 and 992 by the war’s end.
That happened after President Truman authorized the first wartime use of atomic bombs to force the Japanese to surrender. Emperor Hirohito broadcast the news to his nation in a radio broadcast on Aug. 15, 1945. The Allies had secured victory in Europe a few months earlier.
As the fighting ceased, so did the demand for gunpowder and propellants. Most of the workers at Sunflower were dismissed and the plant was mothballed, although a portion of it was turned over to the production of fertilizer. It was pulled into use again during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, but the site was finally declared “excess” by the Army in 1998 and put up for sale.
The next phase saw the property being considered for redevelopment in different ways, including a proposed Wonderful World of Oz theme park. The site also witnessed extensive — and expensive — efforts to clean up contamination left by the plant.
Now we know what the next use of this land will be. Presumably, safeguards will be taken to ensure that the production of EV batteries doesn’t add more contaminants to the environment. I trust that’s being addressed in this process, and I’m sure voices of concern will raise the alarm if they’re not.
De Soto and the surrounding area will again feel the impact of rapid development on a massive scale, which undoubtedly will have downsides for some folks while providing a big boost to the economy. Those who travel K-10 between Lawrence and Overland Park are likely to experience a significant increase in traffic.
At least the growing flow of electric vehicles promises to lighten our carbon loading on the atmosphere.
It does seem somewhat ironic that a company with its roots in Japan will construct its new facility on a site formerly occupied by a plant built in direct response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I say “ironic,” but I could also say “hopeful.”
Does it not seem hopeful that those whose ancestors found themselves in mortal opposition to each other not so long ago can now collaborate on a venture that addresses a larger threat to us all?
As heat waves and drought plague much of the world, glaciers and ice sheets continue melting, and 1,000-year rainfall events keep flooding our Midwestern neighbors, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny that we are indeed facing a climate emergency.
Back in the ’70s, we had no inkling of the threats posed by our incremental warming of the planet, but it’s now quite apparent that we must dramatically step up our efforts to “Live Lightly on the Earth.” Former enemies — and current ones — must find ways to become allies if we are to successfully make this transition to a new relationship with the planet.
Perhaps the cooperation here in Kansas between Republicans and Democrats in laying the groundwork for the new battery plant will serve as an example, spurring collaborations and bridging the divides that have been created in this nation.
While some politicians continue to rail against “woke” culture and evade the real issues facing us, don’t you think it’s about time to wake up and start doing more to turn this ship around?
May the Force be with us all.
Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons. He also produced documentaries and community affairs programs for KTWU, the PBS station licensed to Washburn University in Topeka. He wrote this piece for the Kansas Reflector, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared.
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