Appeal seeks to stop expansion of western Kansas coal-burner

Environmentalists cite health concerns if Sunflower Electric adds on to Holcomb plant

0 | Environment

— The Sierra Club today filed an administrative appeal as part of its ongoing efforts to stop construction of a new, 895-watt, coal-fired power plant near Holcomb in western Kansas.

The petition filed with the Kansas Court of Appeals, among other things, alleges the air quality permit for the facility issued last month by KDHE was the result of a process that was tainted after then-Gov. Mark Parkinson struck a deal with Sunflower Electric Corp. to settle the company's lawsuit against the state after the Kansas Department of Health and Environment initially rejected the permit in 2007.

"What we're trying to do is get the permit invalidated or, alternatively, have the permit remanded back to KDHE for proper review," said Bob Eye, one of the attorneys working with the environmental group. "We also allege that, in essence, there was pre-decision bias that was created by the settlement agreement by then-Gov. Parkinson and Sunflower that essentially attempted to make the issuance of the permit a fait accompli."

One less step

The Sierra Club petition was filed with the appellate court instead of Shawnee County District Court because the Legislature in 2006 amended state law so that appeals of air quality permits would go directly to the Court of Appeals, thereby eliminating a step in the process normal for other contested environmental permits. That change in law was sought by Sunflower in anticipation of legal challenges to its plan to expand its generating capacity at its Holcomb plant, which is near Garden City.

The Sierra Club already has filed a lawsuit in federal district court seeking to halt construction of the generator.

In October 2007, then-KDHE Secretary Roderick Bremby denied Sunflower's permit application, sparking outrage among many legislators, particularly Republicans from western Kansas excited by promises that the plant expansion would mean hundreds of construction jobs.

The denial prompted Sunflower to sue the state. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, supported the permit denial, but she left office in April 2009 to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Obama.

Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson succeeded her and his first significant act after becoming governor was to announce a settlement deal he had reached with Sunflower executives.

Parkinson did not seek election in 2010 and one of the last major things to occur on his watch was the issuance last month by KDHE of the revised permit. Bremby abruptly left office just before the permit was issued amid claims he was pushed out for refusing once again to sign off on the permit.

New regulations

New federal, greenhouse gas regulations became effective Jan. 2 and there was suspicion by environmentalists that the permit was pushed through in order to beat the stiffer federal emissions standards.

Eye said if the permit is sent back to KDHE by the appeal court it would be the same as restarting the application process and Sunflower would have to meet the tougher requirements in order to complete the expansion.

A spokesman for Sunflower was not immediately available for comment.

Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, in his State of the State speech earlier this week pledged that the Sunflower expansion will be completed.

"We will build the expansion of the Holcomb power plant," Brownback said to applause from many legislators. "Affordable energy and electricity exports will help underpin Kansas’ 21st Century economy."

If the expansion goes through, most of the electricity generated would be transmitted to Colorado. Critics of the plan, including the Sierra Club, have said Kansas would get the pollution and Colorado would get the energy.

Supporters of the expansion say it would help hold down electricity costs for western Kansas residents and promote the construction of transmission lines for the export of Kansas wind energy.

But Jennifer Byer, a coal plant opponent, said emissions from the plant would create health hazards.

"As the mother of two sons with asthma, I am aware of the correlation between respiratory health and air quality," she said in a prepared statement. "Nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulates and other hazardous pollutants threaten the health of those with respiratory illness, children and the elderly in particular."