Politics & Government

Environmentalists push EPA on plant

TOPEKA — Environmentalists demanded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency take more aggressive action against a planned coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas, telling a regional administrator Tuesday that he is legally obligated to object to the project's state permit.

Attorneys for Earthjustice sent a letter to Karl Brooks, the EPA's regional administrator, saying that an air-quality permit the state issued in December to Sunflower Electric Power Corp. doesn't comply with federal clean air laws. Sunflower, based in Hays, wants to build the new plant outside Holcomb, in Finney County.

Earthjustice, protesting the permit on behalf of the Sierra Club, told Brooks that he must act under the federal Clean Air Act to order the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to revise the permit. And if state officials won't, the EPA must block the plant's construction , the group said.

"The Clean Air Act has been violated, and the EPA has an obligation to act," said Sierra Club spokeswoman Stephanie Cole. "In this case, too, the EPA knows there are serious deficiencies with the permit, and we expect them to address those deficiencies."

The Sierra Club in January asked the Kansas Court of Appeals to overturn the permit, but the state Supreme Court stepped in last month and took the case, which is not unusual when any outcome is likely to be appealed to it anyway.

Brooks' office already has concluded that the Kansas permit doesn't impose strict enough limits on the potential air pollution from Sunflower's $2.8 billion project. Brooks told KDHE Secretary Robert Moser in a letter last month that he wanted a "dialogue" about issues with the permit.

The EPA has said the state permit's limits on emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide are too lax. The federal agency wants Kansas to impose per-hour limits on the two pollutants, rather than 30-day averages.

EPA officials have said short-term exposure to the two pollutants can cause people to have difficulty breathing and increase symptoms of asthma, resulting in more hospital visits and respiratory illnesses.

Moser responded Tuesday to the EPA's letter from last month, saying the department would use "all available means" to comply with per-hour pollution standards but is waiting for "final guidance" from federal officials so that such standards are applied uniformly.

The permit was issued by Moser's predecessor, Acting Secretary John Mitchell, who remains director of the department's Division of Environment.

But Moser told Brooks in a letter: "I stand by the decision to issue the Sunflower permit, firmly believing it complies with all applicable state and federal air quality requirements."

David Bryan, a spokesman for the regional EPA office, said some of the issues the environmentalists raise echo concerns Brooks outlined in his letter to Moser last month.

But environmentalists also question whether Sunflower is proposing to use the best-available technology to control pollution from its new plant, as required by federal law.

Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertel said the company thinks KDHE did "a thorough and complete job" in considering the utility's permit application.

"We are confident the permit will be upheld as compliant with all environmental laws," she said.

Caleb Stegall, general counsel for both KDHE and Gov. Sam Brownback agreed. "We look forward to defending it before the Kansas Supreme Court."