EPA: State stretched truth on power plant

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —The long fight over whether to build a coal-fired power plant in western Kansas has taken another strange twist:

A federal agency is accusing a state agency of telling tall tales to the highest court in Kansas.

The battle over the Sunflower coal plant is before the Kansas Supreme Court.

The state maintains that the pollution levels it allowed in a permit to build the plant are safe for humans. The Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit saying they're not.

The Environmental Protection Agency agrees with the Sierra Club and has told the state so in letters and discussions over the past two years.

But in its written arguments last month to the Supreme Court, Kansas Department of Health and Environment attorneys may have stretched the truth.

"EPA has no substantial objection to the issuance of the construction permit," KDHE attorneys wrote.

EPA would not comment for this story, but a letter to KDHE from Karl Brooks, EPA Region 7 administrator, on Monday essentially speaks for itself, a spokesman said.

That letter says "Kansas incorrectly informed the court" that EPA did not object to the permit. The letter also said KDHE failed to inform the Supreme Court that it had received three letters from EPA saying the Sunflower permit was not strict enough.

A KDHE spokeswoman said officials would have no comment. A Sunflower official said the company also would have no comment.

The Sierra Club says it plans to point out the inaccurate Kansas statement about emissions in its own Supreme Court arguments.

"EPA has consistently told the state that the permit needed more stringent limits on certain pollutants," said Stephanie Cole, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. "KDHE not only ignored EPA's request to amend the permit to include the more stringent limits, but now KDHE is actually attempting to mischaracterize EPA's position to the court."

Cole also criticized EPA, saying it was time for the federal agency to take stronger action.

"EPA has the legal authority to object to the permit," she said.

But for now, the EPA appears content to continue to push Kansas to change the permit.

In the letter Monday, Brooks wrote that the EPA continues to think that the state could amend the permit to include the federal standards for nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide prior to construction of the plant. He pointed out that the state recently issued a permit to another facility that included those standards.

The coal plant fight has been ongoing since 2006 and has spanned three governors. Originally projected to be three plants, plans eventually were scaled back to one.

In October 2007, then-KDHE Secretary Roderick Bremby rejected the Sunflower permit — it was the first time in the United States a permit had been blocked based on concerns over greenhouse gases.

After then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius left for a Cabinet position under President Obama, her successor, Gov. Mark Parkinson, reached a settlement with Sunflower and agreed to let one plant be built.

But the plant now is on hold because of the Supreme Court case, which may take months to resolve.