The Kansas Department of Health and Environment under Gov. Kathleen Sebelius created “regulatory uncertainty” for business, or so critics said. Nowadays, it increasingly looks as if the certainty is that KDHE will do what a business wants.
The latest evidence to support that conclusion came Thursday, when KDHE blessed the request by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to stop the clock on the permit it won late last year for the planned $2.8 billion expansion of its coal-fired plant near Holcomb in western Kansas. That permit had called for construction to begin within 18 months.
Because of the unusual “stay,” Sunflower can take longer than that — starting construction within a year of the resolution of a legal challenge now before the Kansas Supreme Court — and still build the plant without having to comply with stringent air-pollution standards that kicked in Jan. 1, 2011.
If the court decision comes in 2012, as some legal experts estimate, and construction doesn’t begin until 2013, the new plant could end up being built under air-pollution standards that officially went out of effect in 2010.
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The project has been the subject of exhausting legislative and legal fights for five years, in part because Colorado would get most of the power while Kansas would get the air pollution and provide the water.
After Sebelius’ KDHE denied Sunflower an air-quality permit to build two 700-megawatt generating units, citing health concerns about greenhouse gases, the proposal stalled amid pointless wrangling between the Democratic governor and GOP-led Legislature. Other important measures Kansas needed to make progress on energy stalled, too.
So it was a relief when Mark Parkinson, Sebelius’ successor, finally crafted a deal with Sunflower for a single, less-polluting 895-megawatt coal-fired power plant and the proposal won a permit from KDHE late last year.
But a Kansas City Star investigation last month described how KDHE let Sunflower respond to questions from the public, passing off some of the answers as KDHE’s own. A Sunflower staffer even traveled to Topeka to help set up a computer program to organize the public’s comments for KDHE and Sunflower.
The pace and collaboration revealed in e-mails uncovered by the Star only served suspicions that Parkinson had fired then-Health and Environment Secretary Rod Bremby to fast-track the plant’s approval before the stricter federal rules for greenhouse-gas emissions went into effect.
According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, e-mails also reveal that Sunflower helped KDHE write an explanation for why the permit could sidestep a legislative provision requiring that 5 percent of the coal burned at the new plant have been mined in Kansas — language that had sweetened the bill as economic development.
Health and Environment Secretary Robert Moser, the western Kansas family physician appointed to the job by Gov. Sam Brownback, needs to operate KDHE with independence and transparency, in ways that demonstrate to the public that health and environment are its priorities. The circumstances of the Sunflower approval process and KDHE’s actions since have left the agency looking like an agent for the company.