TOPEKA — A state regulator issued an air-quality permit Thursday for a new coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas, allowing a utility to begin construction on the $2.8 billion project without having to comply with new federal rules on greenhouse gases taking effect in less than three weeks.
Environmentalists immediately condemned the decision by John Mitchell, the state's acting secretary of health and environment, to issue the permit for Sunflower Electric Power Corp., which plans to build the plant outside Holcomb. They accused outgoing Gov. Mark Parkinson of pressuring the Department of Health and Environment into rushing a decision on the permit, which Mitchell denied.
Parkinson brokered a deal with 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. But spokeswoman Amy Jordan Wooden said he never told Mitchell how to rule on the permit.
Sunflower's project enjoys bipartisan support from state legislators, partly because they see such a large project as boosting the state's economy. Many lawmakers were frustrated when a previous secretary and governor stymied the utility's plans for its Holcomb site.
Karl Brooks, the federal Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator, said his office would examine the permit, giving environmentalists some hope EPA will block the plant, though Brooks' statement simply promised a review. Several environmental groups also hinted that critics of Sunflower's project are considering a lawsuit.
But Mitchell said his decision complies with state and federal environmental laws and that the department's staff thoroughly reviewed more than 5,600 comments about the permit for Sunflower.
As for the EPA's planned review, Mitchell said, "I will be very surprised if they have any problem with what we have done."
The 24-page permit sets limits on pollutants such as lead, mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, and it requires Sunflower to begin construction by mid-June 2012.
The new plant would have a capacity of 895 megawatts, enough to meet the peak needs of 448,000 homes, according to one state estimate. About 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 Hays-based electric cooperative doesn't have any firm date to begin construction. She said it must finish engineering work and complete a financing package of loans from other cooperatives. The company expects employment on construction crews to reach 1,900.
"We're ecstatic," she said of the decision. "It's a huge economic boost to the region and to the state."
Sunflower had wanted a decision on the permit before the end of the year because the new federal rules on greenhouse gases linked to global warming take effect Jan. 2, requiring new plants to use the best available technology to control greenhouse gas emissions. Sunflower officials have said they're confident their technology would meet the standard but worried about delays as the issue was reviewed.
KDHE officials said Sunflower's plant will have to comply next year with other rules requiring utilities to inventory their greenhouse gas emissions and any future EPA rules. But critics of Sunflower's project said neither promise is as good for the environment as meeting the requirements taking effect Jan 2.
Environmentalists also noted that utilities in other states — including Arizona, California and Oregon — are planning to retire coal-fired plants. On Wednesday, Colorado regulators issued written orders that will leave no coal-fired plants in the Denver area after 2017.
"The rest of the nation is moving away from coal," said Amanda Goodin, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice. "It's just a huge step backward for the state of Kansas and for the environment."
In October 2007, Mitchell's predecessor, Secretary Rod Bremby, denied a permit for two coal-fired power plants at the same Holcomb location, citing greenhouse gases as the reason. Environmentalists around the nation praised his decision.
Democrat Kathleen Sebelius was governor at the time, and she backed Bremby. Legislators who favored the project tried to overturn Bremby's decision by law, but Sebelius vetoed their bills. They blocked "green" measures she favored.
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 Sunflower's permit. 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.
Parkinson, a Democrat, did not run for a full four-year term and leaves office Jan. 10. Brownback, a Republican, supports Sunflower's project.