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Future of Holcomb coal plant still up in the air

By Sarah Green | September 24, 2007

By Sarah Green
KHI News Service

TOPEKA, Sept. 24 It has been almost 16 months since the Kansas Department of Health and Environment began reviewing a permit application from Sunflower Electric Power Co. to expand its coal-fired power plant in western Kansas and the project has become no less controversial since the process began.

KDHE faces a Dec. 1 deadline for its decision whether to allow the plant expansion in Holcomb but the gulf between opponents and supporters of the proposed generators remains wide.

"We certainly are anxious for this process to come to a conclusion," said Steve Miller, a spokesman for Sunflower. "Our view is that our application has been properly filed and the permit has been drafted to be technically compliant with the laws and regulations of the state and federal agencies that are responsible for overseeing these things. We believe the secretary (of KDHE) will review the permit and issue it under the law."

But opponents say it makes no sense to build new coal-burning plants when concerns over global warming and the ties between plant emissions and health are growing more pronounced.

Craig Volland, the chairman of the air quality committee of the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, said the increase in particulate matter from a bigger Sunflower plant could make its way from the southwest corner of the state to northeast Kansas, affecting Topeka and Kansas City.

"This plant is 400 miles from Kansas City I don"t think there will be an ozone impact here," Volland said. "But there will be some incremental impacts from fine particulates."

And the links between increased particulates and health are well-known to public health and environment specialists. Particulates can be natural dust, pollen or produced as a byproduct of vehicles, factories or electric generation. The particulates associated with coal-fired power plants include carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides.

"In general, emissions from coal-fired power plants nationwide contribute to problems like haze in national parks, acid deposition in the northeast, ozone in large metropolitan areas, mercury contamination of fish supplies and formation of fine particulate matter," said Jon Knodel, an environmental engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency"s Region 7 Air Permitting and Compliance Program in Kansas City. Though EPA monitors and regulates emissions from plants once they are built, it has no role in the permitting of the Sunflower Plant"s planned expansion other than the ability to comment on it publicly, just like anyone else.

EPA, in its written comments, suggested that KDHE require stronger emission standards than proposed in the application based upon the type of coal most likely to be burned at the plant. It also recommended that KDHE be sure to include language in any permit approved making it clear that the permit would be void if construction had not begun with 18 months of issuance.

"if Sunflower does not commence construction on one or more of the units and does not provide the analysis required by the permit in a time frame prior to the close of the 18 month period, KDHE should make clear that authorization to construct any subsequent units automatically becomes void. It is essential that Sunflower submit the reanalysis in a timely fashion or they must begin a newpermitting review. Again, KDHE may want to provide this clarification in the permit, or associated record, so there is no confusion later on," EPA wrote.

But for now, barring the progress of lawsuits already filed against the project, the regulatory decision to build the expansion rests with KDHE. Experts there are well aware of the health concerns related to increased particulates associated with coal-burning plants. But how much that might weigh in the agency"s decision remains unclear for now.

Particulate matter can trigger respiratory and cardiovascular "events" in sensitive populations, said Lesa Roberts, an environmental health officer for KDHE.

"There have been some studies that have shown people with underlying cardiovascular and heart conditions may be more affected by small particulate matter," she said.

By law, KDHE Bureau of Air and Radiation must consider four factors when deciding whether to issue a permit, said Clark Duffy, director of the agency"s Bureau of Air and Radiation.

The application must show the project is:
* Protective of public health;
* Preserves or protects sensitive natural areas, such as national parks or areas with scenic or historic value;
* It must allow for economic growth while preserving air quality;
* And the public must have had its opportunity to comment on the application.

By December 2006, when the agency stopped collecting public comment, it had received more than 700 comments and is responding to each, Duffy said.

"That"s one of the reasons it"s taking us longer than normal" to make a decision, he said. "In the case of a power plant, many of the comments are highly technical."

The expansion

Sunflower Electric Power Corp. is a wholesale electric company based in Hays that provides electricity to rural cooperatives. It wants to add two coal-fired electric generators at its Holcomb Station power plant, which is already home to one coal-fired generator capable of producing 388 megawatts of electricity.

If the additional generators are approved, the Holcomb plant would be capable of producing 1,400 megawatts of electricity, which could be used by as many as 1.5 million customers in seven states.

The new generators, if built, will be cleaner than older plants still in operation.

"When compared to a typical "grandfathered" unit one which was built prior to 1978 the new units are substantially cleaner," Knodel said. "New coal generators are also more efficient at burning coal and generating electricity, which helps to reduce the amount of pollution."

Global warming

But even a cleaner coal plant worries environmentalists concerned about global warming.

The increased output of carbon dioxide associated with the new power generation could contribute to the global problem, Volland said. And that has helped the proposed Sunflower expansion gain national attention.

As originally proposed, the plant included three additional coal-fired generators that would have been capable of producing a total of 2,100 megawatts the largest new source of electricity in the country.

That plan was scaled back by Sunflower to two generators, which is more "typical" of other projects under review across the country, but is still the largest project under construction in EPA"s Region 7, Knodel said.

Kansas already has seven coal-fired plants in operation that produce more than 75 percent of the state"s electricity, according to the federal Energy Information Agency. With the exception of the existing Holcomb plant, six are in the northeast region of the state.

The most powerful plant, Westar"s Jeffrey Energy Center near St. Marys, is undergoing a $465 million project to rebuild the scrubbers that clean air leaving the smokestacks.

It was more cost-effective to rebuild the scrubbers than to install new emissions controls or build a new plant, said Bill Eastman, director of environmental services for Westar.

"Most power plants are custom-built," he said. "It"s not like building a hundred cars the same way."

Jeffery was listed as the 19th "dirtiest" power plant in the country in a 2007 review by the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization started by former EPA attorneys.

But Eastman said the company implemented controls to meet federal regulations, even before proposed regulations become mandatory.

"We try to stay ahead of the curve and make sure we"re clean as can be," Eastman said. "At the same time, we have to be sensitive to our rate-payers and consumers. It"s a balance issue."

Sunflower has worked with the federal government to decrease mercury emissions at its current Holcomb plant and has started a project to grow algae with carbon dioxide emissions. The algae could be used as alternative fuel or a feed source for animals.

Environmental advocates are asking for stricter federal controls on carbon dioxide one of the most plentiful emissions expected if the Sunflower expansion goes forward. Sunflower will meet current regulations, Miller said, and will make the necessary adjustments if the regulations change.

"When and if those laws are in effect, we will be the first in line to comply with those laws," he said. "We can"t, as a business, sit out here and take action or not take action if those laws don"t exist."

-Sarah Green is a staff writer for KHI News Service, which specializes in coverage of health issues facing Kansans. She can be reached at or at 785-233-5443, ext. 118.