TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Environmentalists demanded more aggressive action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency against a planned coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas, telling a regional administrator on Tuesday that he's legally obligated to object to a state permit allowing the project.
Attorneys for Earthjustice sent a letter to Karl Brooks, the EPA's regional administrator, saying that an air-quality permit issued in December by the state to Sunflower Electric Power Corp. doesn't comply with federal clean air laws. Sunflower, based in Hays, wants to build the new plant outside Holcomb, in Finney County.
Earthjustice, protesting the permit on behalf of the Sierra Club, told Brooks that he's obligated to order the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to revise the permit. And, the group said, if state officials won't, the EPA must block the plant's construction.
"The permit's failure to comply with the minimum requirements of the (federal) Clean Air Act requires EPA action," Earthjustice attorney Amanda Goodin and Todd True said in the letter, obtained by The Associated Press ahead of the environmentalists' announcement of their action. "EPA is obligated to take action to prevent the construction of the plant until such time as an adequate permit is issued."
The Sierra Club also is pursuing a legal challenge to the permit. In January, it asked the Kansas Court of Appeals to overturn the permit, but the state Supreme Court stepped in last month and took the case, which is not unusual when any outcome is likely to be appealed to it anyway.
Brooks' office already has concluded that the Kansas permit doesn't impose strict enough limits on the potential air pollution from Sunflower's $2.8 billion project. Brooks told KDHE Secretary Robert Moser in a letter last month that he wanted "dialogue" about issues with the permit.
The EPA has said the state permit's limits on emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide too lax. The federal agency wants Kansas to impose per-hour limits on the two pollutants, rather than 30-day averages.
EPA officials have said short-term exposure to the two pollutants can cause people to have difficulty breathing and increase symptoms of asthma, resulting in more hospital visits and respiratory illnesses.
The environmentalists' letter raises the same issue and also questions whether Sunflower is proposing to use the best-available technology to control pollution from its new plant, as required by federal law.
Spokesman David Bryan said the regional EPA office is reviewing the environmentalists' letter and plans to respond later.
The letter said: "The EPA must either require KDHE to issue an amended permit, including new emissions limitations following a new public comment period, or EPA must take action to prevent the construction of this unlawful facility."
Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertel said the company also is reviewing the environmentalists' letter to the EPA. State officials have defended their permit as complying with applicable state and federal laws, but KDHE spokesman Jonathan Larance declined to comment about the environmentalists' letter about the permit because of the ongoing litigation.
"We just look forward to defending it when it goes before the Supreme Court," he said.
Sunflower supplies power for about 400,000 Kansans and plans to build a plant with a capacity of 895 megawatts, enough to meet the peak demands of 448,000 households, 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.
That's long been a sore point for many critics of Sunflower's push to add coal-fired generating capacity, but the utility's supporters say exporting electricity is as beneficial as exporting beef, wheat and other agricultural commodities.
Sunflower's plans for the new plant are in keeping with an agreement in April 2009 between Sunflower and then-Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson.
Sunflower had wanted to build two new coal-fired plants outside Holcomb, but saw that project blocked by KDHE under Parkinson's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Legislators who supported the project in turn had stymied "green" policies favored by Parkinson and Sebelius.
Parkinson left office in January and was followed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, a strong supporter of Sunflower's project.