news feature
July 07, 2009




Kansas Utility Faces New Permit Hurdles for Proposed Coal Plant
by Environment News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas, July 6, 2009 – A new stage has opened in the long-running battle over a proposed coal-fired power plant in western Kansas.

In a letter sent July 1, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notified the state of Kansas and Sunflower Electric Power Corp. that a new air quality permit will be required before Sunflower can build an 895-megawatt extension to its existing coal-burning power plant near Holcomb.

Sunflower's existing coal-fired power plant at Holcomb, Kansas (photo courtesy Ohio Citizen Action)

The EPA letter echoes a letter sent by the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice and the Sierra Club to the state and to Sunflower on June 19 stating that a new permit would be needed and that the public has a legal right to review and comment on any new permit application.

The groups' letter was prompted by a closed-door deal struck between Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson and Sunflower Electric in May seeking to guarantee the power company a permit. The groups claim that this deal sought to illegally circumvent the public process.

"We fully support EPA's position and agree the public is entitled to an opportunity to voice their concerns on a project that has implications to our health and environment," said Stephanie Cole of the Kansas Sierra Club.

In its July 1 letter, EPA agreed with the conservation groups that the law requires Sunflower Electric to submit new environmental analyses for the recently proposed power plant in its permit application.

Sunflower's plans for the Holcomb power plant extension first came to national attention on October 18, 2007 when the state of Kansas denied the company's application for an air quality permit on the grounds that the facility would emit too much of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. It was the first such denial in the country.

Rod Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said then, "I believe it would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing."

This decision constituted a first step in emerging policy to address existing and future carbon dioxide emissions in Kansas. "KDHE will work to engage various industries and stakeholders to establish goals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions and strategies to achieve them. This is consistent with initiatives underway in states leading the effort to address climate change," said Bremby.

Then Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who now heads the federal Department of Health and Human Services, repeatedly defended Bremby's decision against attempts by the state legislature to permit Sunflower to build two new 700 MW power plants by vetoing four bills that came to her desk for signature.

When Sebelius resigned April 28 to take up her Cabinet position, Lt. Governor Parkinson moved into the governor's mansion and within a month struck a deal with Sunflower to allow one new 895 MW generating facility.

The new arrangement, enacted into law May 22, allows Sunflower to build the coal plant at Holcomb, but required passage of a renewable energy bill providing that wind farms and other renewable sources must provide 20 percent of Kansas public utilities’ electricity by 2020.

Sunflower agreed to take steps to offset the plant’s potential carbon dioxide emissions, estimated at almost 6.7 million tons a year.

But now, the power company has another permit battle on its hands.

In his July 1, 2009 letter to the state and Sunflower, U.S. EPA Region 7 Acting Regional Administrator William Rice points out that the company's original permit application in 2006 covered three new 700 MW generating units. However, the draft final permit, prepared after EPA's review and after the close of the public comment period, was for two 700 MW units. Now the company wants to build one 895 MW unit.

The larger unit would require design changes such as a relocated stack that the EPA letter says could "change the location of significant emissions impacts," was well as more scrubbers and changes to materials handling facilities.

In addition, the EPA recommends that the new permit application include an evaluation of fine particulate matter emissions, called PM2.5, instead of relying on its previous analysis of larger particulate matter emissions, PM10.

Both the state of Kansas and the U.S. EPA must sign off on any new permit issued, and the EPA says the state must allow a 30 day public notice and comment period, making its analysis of the new project available for public review.

In its letter, the EPA also emphasized that the coal plant will require a separate permit application process for the most hazardous pollutants it will emit, such as mercury and acid gases, because since 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court has vacated the Bush-era exemption of coal-fired power plants from the regulatory requirements for hazardous air pollutants.

The EPA also says the plant's operators would need to review the best available control technology to minimize pollution since it may have improved in the three years since it was last considered.

Amanda Goodin of Earthjustice said, "EPA is correct to require a new permitting process because this will bring out into the light of day the danger posed by this dirty coal plant which the governor and the coal power company sought to keep from the public."

Reprinted with permission. For more information, go to the Environment News Service,