KDHE was a lapdog

State regulators should work with businesses. But they shouldn’t turn permitting processes over to applicants — which is what the Kansas Department of Health and Environment effectively did with the Holcomb power-plant expansion.

The Kansas City Star obtained more than 1,400 e-mails between KDHE staff and employees of Sunflower Electric Power Corp. In addition to documenting nearly daily communication between the two staffs during the permitting process, the e-mails reveal that KDHE allowed Sunflower to respond to questions from the public and then passed off some of the answers as its own. KDHE staffers also asked company officials in some cases to decide whether KDHE should respond to some of the public comments, the Star reported.

“I don’t see how an agency can credibly argue that it can delegate its decision-making authority to an applicant,” said Maxine Lipeles, co-director of the environmental program at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.

Former KDHE Secretary Roderick Bremby was more blunt.

“It is disgusting,” Bremby said. “We are supposed to be working with the applicant but not for the applicant. We also work for the citizens of the state. There was a total abdication of responsibility.”

Bremby was removed from his job by then-Gov. Mark Parkinson in November 2010, the month before the permit was approved. Though Parkinson never explained why he fired Bremby, many suspect it was because Bremby had rejected an earlier permit application by Sunflower and had raised concerns about the fast pace of the second application process.

Earlier reporting by the Star found that KDHE staff worked nights and weekends toward the end of the permitting process, apparently in an attempt to expedite approval of the permit before stricter federal rules for greenhouse-gas emissions went into effect.

Associated Press also reported that KDHE was under pressure from state lawmakers and Sunflower officials to limit the public’s ability to participate in the permitting process.

The Eagle editorial board supported the compromise negotiated by Parkinson allowing Sunflower to build one additional coal-fired unit at its Holcomb plant, rather than two plants. But that presumed KDHE would live up to its regulatory responsibilities.

In fact, Parkinson promised shortly after he sacked Bremby that KDHE would “conduct the review in a fair, thorough and independent manner” and that it would “approve or deny the permit based on the law and the facts and not based on unfair input.”

The e-mails indicate that didn’t happen.

That’s not to say that if KDHE had taken more time and acted more independently, it would have reached a different decision. It still might have approved the air-quality permit.

But KDHE’s stated mission is to protect public health and the environment. It is supposed to be a watchdog, not an industry lapdog.