Create a free account to continue

Regulator To Make Announcement On Coal Plant

Environmentalists expect a Kansas regulator to announce Thursday whether he's approved a permit for a new coal-fired power plant in the southwest part of the state.

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Environmentalists expected a Kansas regulator to announce Thursday that he's approved a permit for a new coal-fired power plant in the southwest part of the state.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp. needed the air-quality permit from the state Department of Health and Environment to move ahead with its $2.8 billion project outside Holcomb. The utility and its supporters had hoped a permit would be issued before the end of the year, so the new plant wouldn't fall under federal regulations on greenhouse gases linked to global warming, which take effect Jan. 2.

Acting KDHE Secretary John Mitchell scheduled a Thursday afternoon news conference to announce his decision. Department spokeswoman Kristi Pankratz declined to discuss it beforehand, but environmentalists already have accused outgoing Gov. Mark Parkinson's administration of rushing the permit.

Parkinson brokered a deal with Hays-based Sunflower in April 2009 to allow the plant's construction and clear opposition in the Legislature to proposals he favored to promote wind and other forms of renewable energy. The governor has said he hasn't been involved in the permitting process and doesn't care how it turns out, but environmentalists put little stock in such statements.

Scott Allegrucci, executive director of the Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy, said before the news conference that the department should take more time to review questions about the project and the proposed permit for Sunflower. But he said he anticipated the permit's approval.

"We've known this was coming," Allegrucci said. "We've been assuming that it's a fait accompli."

Sunflower's plant would have a capacity of 895 megawatts, enough to meet the peak needs of 448,000 homes, according to one state estimate. Three-quarters of the new capacity, or 695 megawatts, would be reserved for a Sunflower partner, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., of Westminster, Colo.

Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertel said the department isn't rushing a decision.

Sunflower has worked on proposals for additional coal-fired generating capacity since 2001, and in 2006 filed an application for a permit for two plants on the same Holcomb site.

"We think it's been thoroughly vetted," she said.

In October 2007, Mitchell's predecessor, Secretary Rod Bremby, denied a permit for two coal-fired power plants. He cited the potential hazards posed by new greenhouse gas emissions, and environmentalists around the nation praised his decision.

Democrat Kathleen Sebelius was governor at the time, and she backed his decision.

But Sunflower's efforts to build two plants had bipartisan support among legislators, and they passed bills in 2008 and 2009 to overturn Bremby's decision and strip the secretary of some of his power. Sebelius vetoed the measures, while legislators blocked "green" energy policies she sought.

In April 2009, Sebelius resigned to become U.S. secretary of health and human services, elevating Parkinson from lieutenant governor to governor. Almost immediately, he brokered the deal with Sunflower.

Bremby stepped down as KDHE secretary in November, and environmentalists worry he was forced out to smooth the way for a permit for Sunflower. Parkinson's office has said Bremby was asked to take a job helping to manage the transition to Gov.-elect Sam Brownback's administration and declined.

Later, Pankratz confirmed that salaried KDHE employees involved in Sunflower's permit worked extra hours around Thanksgiving, though at no additional cost to the state. She said such extra work is not unusual within the agency, but environmentalists saw it as another sign that the permit was being rushed.

Parkinson, a Democrat, did not run for a full four-year term and leaves office Jan. 10. Brownback, a Republican, supports Sunflower's project.
More in Energy