KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Sunflower Electric Co. will have more time before it is required to begin construction of its controversial coal-fired plant in western Kansas after the state issued an unusual extension for the company's building permit.
The order issued Thursday by Robert Moser, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, apparently means the company will not have to adhere to stricter pollution laws that took effect in January.
Environmental groups called the extension improper and said it showed a continuing cozy relationship between Sunflower and KDHE.
In his order, Moser said state law allowed him to issue the stay. Spokeswoman Miranda Myrick said the department's action will preserve the status quo while legal disputes over the coal plant are resolved.
Proponents of the proposed plant, adjacent to an existing one outside Holcomb in western Kansas, say it will bring crucial jobs and economic development to the region.
Opponents say the plant will pollute, draw down water reserves and provide electricity that isn't needed in Kansas. Colorado residents will receive much of the electricity.
Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertel said the department's action is fair to both the utility and environmental groups that oppose the plant, such as the Sierra Club, which has filed a legal challenge to the state's decision late last year to let the project go forward.
Hertel said the Sierra Club can't complain, unless it was hoping to use its challenge to "run out" the construction clock.
Environmental groups have sued to stop construction of the plant, prompting Sunflower to delay construction. The permit requires plant construction to begin within 18 months.
"KDHE's order allows the Sierra Club to pursue its legal right to contest the permit while not impairing Sunflower's legal right to construct the Holcomb expansion project," Hertel said.
The department's action pauses the clock for determining when Sunflower has to start construction, but Myrick said in a statement that it's not an extension because the 18-month period specified in the permit hasn't been changed.
"The request and grant of a stay is neither an unusual nor unprecedented feature of litigation," she said. "A stay is a common procedural action taken during judicial review to preserve the status quo of the parties and allow courts the necessary time to render judgment."
Normally, a company waits until a permit is about to expire before seeking an extension. Under that type of extension, the company's project could be subject to laws implemented since the permit was first issued.
The extension allows Sunflower to build the plant under pollution laws in place when the permit was issued in December, avoiding new, stricter air pollution standards that took effect in January. The new laws would add tens of millions of dollars to the plant's costs.