In this Feb. 7, 2007 file photo, Sunflower Electric Cooperative's coal-fired power plant churns out electricity in Holcomb, Kan. The state's top environmental regulator is considering whether to clear the way once again for a new coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas, and environmentalists contend that Gov. Sam Brownback's administration is taking short cuts to ensure that the $2.8 billion project is built. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, file)
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The state's top environmental regulator is considering whether to clear the way again for a new coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas, but environmentalists contend that Gov. Sam Brownback's administration is taking short cuts to ensure that the $2.8 billion project is built.
Sunflower Electric Power Corp. needs a pollution-control permit from the state Department of Health and Environment for its proposed 895-megawatt plant outside Holcomb in Finney County, where the Hays-based utility already has another coal-fired plant. It obtained a permit in December 2010, but eight months ago, the Kansas Supreme Court ordered the department to revise it to impose tougher air-quality standards.
Secretary Robert Moser is reviewing a proposed amendment drafted by the department's staff, and his approval would allow Sunflower to go forward with the project.
But the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, national environmental groups involved in the lawsuit prompting the court decision, argue the department should have started over, rather than amending the old permit. Both groups also want the state to scrap the project and focus on aggressive development of renewable energy.
"They are once again trying to take short cuts," said Amanda Goodin, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represented the Sierra Club in the lawsuit over the 2010 permit. "It really has been whatever they can do to ram this through as quickly as possible."
Department officials declined to discuss the proposed amendment to the Sunflower permit because Moser is still reviewing it. The agency also isn't saying when Moser will decide.
In a "summary sheet" for the permit amendment prepared earlier this year, the department's staff said environmental modeling done for Sunflower in 2010 showed its new coal plant would meet even the more rigorous standards demanded by the Supreme Court.
The court told the department to impose a set of hourly limits on nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions, rather than the less stringent three-hour limits set by the permit. It also ordered another set of tougher standards for other pollutants, including mercury. In both cases, the Kansas agency wasn't incorporating rules the EPA had set while the permit was pending.
But the Kansas court declined to invalidate the entire 2010 permit, as the Sierra Club had requested.
"The addendum addresses two aspects of the original permit," Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertel said in an email. "It is not a new permit."
Earthjustice and the Sierra Club dispute the department's assessment that the project would meet the more rigorous environmental standards. The department also received written comments from more than two dozen people across the state, protesting the project.
"This project doesn't make sense for anyone in Kansas," Goodin said.
The nonprofit Sunflower supplies wholesale power for about 400,000 homes in southwest Kansas through six electric cooperatives. The new plant would generate enough electricity to supply 537,000 homes, according to one state estimate, but Sunflower would reserve 78 percent of it for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., a wholesaler supplying 44 cooperatives in its home state of Colorado and Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Sunflower has sought to add coal-fired generating capacity since 2001 and proposed two new plants at the Holcomb site in 2006. Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' administration rejected a permit, touching off a two-year firestorm in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
But in 2009, new Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson brokered a deal with Sunflower for a single coal-fired plant outside Holcomb in exchange for legislation setting renewable-energy requirements for utilities. Legislators signed off, but the Sierra Club challenged the 2010 permit in court.
Brownback and legislators in both parties have supported the project, viewing it as economic development for southwest Kansas. In comments submitted to KDHE in January, Scot Albertson, a Kansas City, Missouri, international boilermakers' union official, cited the potential employment for some of its 2,000 members, saying the environmental groups "show little concern about jobs lost."
And Hertel said: "Having access to natural gas, wind, and coal-based resources allows Sunflower to continue providing our members — and, ultimately, the thousands of Kansans they serve — with reliable energy at the lowest possible cost."