Coal permit expected this year

TOPEKA — A new coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas is on track to obtain a state environmental permit by year's end so that it wouldn't have to comply with new federal rules on greenhouse gas emissions, officials confirmed Thursday.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp. had worried it might not get its permit until next year. Federal rules taking effect Jan. 2 require new power plants to use the best available technology for controlling greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

State Sen. Janis Lee, a Kensington Democrat who strongly supports Sunflower's plans, acknowledged Thursday "some angst" over the permitting process at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The department already has taken public comments about the plan for a plant outside Holcomb, in Finney County. However, it plans a second comment period because of problems with the utility's environmental modeling software.

A key issue for Sunflower and environmentalists has been whether the new public comment period would last 30 days, the minimum required, or 45. Spokeswoman Kristi Pankratz said Thursday that the department had decided on the shorter period.

As for the permitting decision, Pankratz said, "We're hoping to have that by the end of the year."

Lee also said a decision should be reached by the end of the year.

"I believe that there was communication between the governor's office and the secretary, and the decision was made on 30 days" for the comment period, Lee said.

Environmentalists see the shorter comment period as a sign the department is rushing a decision.

In an e-mail dated Monday and obtained by the Associated Press, Sunflower's vice president of member service and external affairs, Clare Gustin, accused department Secretary Rod Bremby of "gaming the process" to delay a permit. Cindy Hertel, a spokeswoman for the Hays-based utility, said the e-mail was an attempt to keep supporters of the project updated.

Bremby rejected an earlier plan by Sunflower to build two coal-fired plants, deciding in October 2007, more than a year after his staff drafted a proposed air-quality permit. The proposed permit for the latest project was finished June 30.

The e-mail said Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson, who supports the project, was meeting Thursday with key supporters of the plan.