Coal plant critics ask EPA to intervene

TOPEKA — Environmentalists are asking federal officials to move quickly to block Kansas from issuing an air-quality permit to a new coal-fired power plant before new rules on greenhouse gas emissions take effect next year.

The state Department of Health and Environment hopes to decide whether to issue the permit by the end of the year to Sunflower Electric Power Corp. for its plant in southwest Kansas.

A Sierra Club spokeswoman said Tuesday that it's not enough time for the department to fully consider comments about Sunflower's $2.8 billion project outside Holcomb, in Finney County.

Earthjustice, a Seattle-based law firm representing the Sierra Club, sent a letter Monday to Karl Brooks, the Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator in Kansas City, Mo. The letter asked Brooks to have the EPA "play a more active role" in the state's permitting process.

The Sierra Club wants the EPA to require the state agency to lengthen the time it takes comments about Sunflower's project and require a thorough review and response by KDHE to those comments.

"We are skeptical that they can adequately review and respond to all public comments by the end of the year," Sierra Club spokeswoman Stephanie Cole said Tuesday. "It's not something that should be rushed."

Under new EPA rules taking effect Jan. 2, the state must require a new power plant to use the best available technology to control greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change. Sunflower and backers of the project worry that the Hays-based utility will be forced to postpone construction for months while it tries to persuade officials that its existing technology is sufficient.

Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertel said the Sierra Club's letter wasn't surprising.

"They have a penchant for delay," she said.

Both the EPA and the KDHE declined to comment about the letter.

Sunflower's new plant would have a capacity of 895 megawatts, enough to meet the peak needs of 448,000 homes, according to one state estimate. But 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.

KDHE took public comments for 45 days, from July 1 through Aug. 15, but it plans to have a second comment period because of issues with the environmental modeling software used by Sunflower. That second comment period is to start Friday and run 30 days, through Oct. 23, with a public hearing Oct. 25.

Agency staff would then review and respond to the comments and forward a recommendation to KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby.