Nine Kansas state employees have been voluntarily working weekends and late into the night to finish a review of a permit for a power plant.
Kansas Department of Health and Environment officials think they should be able to issue the air quality permit for the coal-fired plant of Sunflower Electric Power Corp. by the end of the year.
And that worries the coal plant's opponents, who said the extra hours were a clear signal that the state was pushing the permit process too fast.
Sunflower would benefit greatly if the permit is issued before Jan. 1, when new rules would force the utility to install greenhouse gas pollution controls that will add tens of millions of dollars to the price of the proposed plant near Holcomb in western Kansas.
Never miss a local story.
That doesn't mean the state is doing Sunflower any favors, acting KDHE Secretary John Mitchell said in an interview. Although the state's deadline coincides with Sunflower's, the two timelines are independent, he said.
Workers are volunteering to work longer hours, Mitchell said. Staffers weren't ordered to do the work, and they cannot receive overtime because they are exempt.
"We have a dedicated staff in the Bureau of Air," Mitchell said.
"There has been no effort to get these people to work harder on this. Part of it, too, this has been going on four-plus years, and I think some people are driven to get the job done because they are ready to move on to other things."
Mitchell said employees usually get more work done at night and on weekends when other employees are not around.
"They are more productive when the phone is not ringing and they are not being interrupted by people coming by," he said.
Mitchell said he expected the permit to be issued this month.
Moving too fast?
But some question the employees' generosity.
"There is little doubt that outside influences are manipulating the process," said Stephanie Cole, spokeswoman for the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club. "I think the concerns are justified that the process has been undermined."
Opponents think the permitting process is moving too fast.
They point out that the current permitting process has generated about 6,000 comments that are being reviewed in about six months. The first permitting process took 16 months and involved about 800 comments.
"How on Earth are you going to do all of this in such a short amount of time?" Cole asked.
Each comment must be read and addressed. About 4,000 comments are nearly the same, Mitchell said, making them easier to deal with, although some can be technical.
Mitchell also points out that the permit is not entirely new — it's a modification of the previous permit.
EPA is watching
The Environmental Protection Agency is watching the permit's progress and will determine if the permit is based on sound science and protects public health, said Karl Brooks, administrator for EPA Region 7. The agency will also ensure the public comments were fully and fairly considered, he said.
But Scott Allegrucci, executive director of Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy, a nonprofit agency that opposes the plant, criticized the speed of the permitting process, saying it blurs the department's responsibilities.
"The public agency of health and environment has a set of obligations that are outlined in the statutes," Allegrucci said. "Those obligations tilt toward the public's health and environmental interest. Putting pressure and a time crunch on them creates a number of concerns for us."
Sunflower officials did not return phone calls requesting an interview.
Adding to the speculation, former KDHE chief Roderick Bremby was ousted last month even though he would have most likely left the job when newly elected Gov. Sam Brownback takes office on Jan. 10.
Coal plant opponents said Bremby was removed after Sunflower officials criticized him to state legislators and the governor's staff for slowing the permit process. That was putting the Dec. 31 deadline in jeopardy, according to Sunflower e-mails leaked at the time.
Gov. Mark Parkinson has declined to discuss Bremby's removal except to say that he offered Bremby a job as Cabinet transition director and he turned it down. Bremby could not be reached for comment.
Rick Brunetti, KDHE's bureau of air director, is one of the employees working additional hours. He said they began working longer hours before Thanksgiving as the work was coming to an end.
"It was more a consensus of the individuals who were working on the permit than it was from any mandate from management," he said. He and his staff realize "it's a very, very important job."
Last week he and his staff "have been working late into the evening," he said. "And I suspect we will be late into the evening tonight and tomorrow night and probably until such time as we are happy" with the report.