COAL

Kan. approves air permit for controversial Sunflower power plant

State officials in Kansas announced today that they have approved a permit for Sunflower Electric Power Corp.'s proposed coal-fired power plant near Holcomb, Kan., a project that has prompted years of debate between environmental groups and the project's supporters.

John Mitchell, the acting secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the facility would be the cleanest coal plant in Kansas history, releasing about 40 percent less emissions than the power company had proposed in an earlier application.

"While KDHE understands the sensitive, political debate surrounding this permit, our agency has a duty to examine a company's permit application objectively and fairly and then, if it meets all state and federal requirements, issue such a permit," he said in a statement this afternoon. "I am confident that this is the best permit possible for Kansas."

Although the final permit is expected to face challenges from environmental groups and will be reviewed by U.S. EPA, today's decision clears the biggest procedural hurdle that had been standing in front of the 895-megawatt power plant.

The permit is a defeat for groups that have made the Sunflower proposal a symbol of a national campaign against new coal-fired power plants. Roderick Bremby, the former secretary of the environmental agency, had spoken out against the project in 2007, saying that its greenhouse gas emissions would damage the environment and hurt Kansans.

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After becoming governor last year, Parkinson struck a deal with Sunflower to allow the current proposal, rather than three reactors that would produce 2,100 megawatts of electricity. But EPA decided the change was significant enough that the whole permit needed to go back to the drawing board. It was the first time that a U.S. agency had delayed a new coal plant based on concerns that it could worsen the effects of climate change.

Last month, Bremby was ousted, prompting speculation that Gov. Mark Parkinson (D) was trying to speed along the permitting process. Unlike his predecessor as governor, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Parkinson has supported the project (Greenwire, Nov. 9).

In recent months, the state agency has been working overtime to make a decision on the permit before new federal rules for greenhouse gases take effect on Jan. 2. Those rules would add another step to the review process and likely push back a final decision by months.

Environmental groups had criticized the agency for trying to avoid the new rules, which would require the plant to install the best technology available to limit its greenhouse gas emissions. They signaled today that they could file suit if they feel Kansas officials did not pay enough attention to public comments before signing off on the permit.

"The rushed job on this permit is an injustice to the thousands of citizens who participated in the process with the belief that their input was meaningful," said Stephanie Cole of the Kansas Sierra Club in a statement today. "By turning the permitting process into a race against the clock, the state has signaled that it does not value public involvement."

If all goes as planned, Sunflower will begin construction on the $2.8 billion plant within two years.

But the company will need permission from EPA, which intends to review the permit, Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks wrote in a recent op-ed.

"EPA must scrutinize not just the language of any Sunflower permit, but the whole state decision-making process that produced a permit," he wrote in the Kansas City Star. "EPA has advised Kansas leaders of their duties many times. And Kansans should rest assured that this agency will make sure the rule of law has been faithfully enforced."

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