Today, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) issued a permit for the highly controversial coal plant Sunflower Electric seeks to construct near Holcomb. The coal plant has been the subject of a multi-year controversy after being denied a permit in the fall of 2007.
Today’s action and the controversy it has generated is expected to provoke a review by the federal government. A top Environmental Protection Agency official wrote in an open letter on November 27:
“If KDHE recommends Sunflower be permitted before Jan. 2, EPA will review this initial decision … That’s why EPA must scrutinize not just the language of any Sunflower permit, but the whole state decision-making process that produced a permit.”
“The EPA has announced plans to carefully review this permit to determine whether KDHE adequately considered public comments and whether the permit includes the strong pollution controls required under the Clean Air Act,” said Amanda Goodin of Earthjustice. “If EPA blinks—and it certainly shouldn’t—the Clean Air Act allows the people of Kansas legal redress to ensure the Act’s full enforcement.”
The final permit was pushed through in less than six months despite a comment period that generated 6,000 public comments, many of which were against the project, and despite decreasing electricity demand, low natural gas prices, and considerable renewable energy growth. In fact, just this month Colorado announced it will be shutting down coal plants while Kansas brings a comparable amount of new coal capacity online, ironically, mostly to serve Colorado.
“Thousands of people got involved in the permitting process with a belief that their input would be fairly considered, and it should have been. Accelerating the process to permit a coal plant for an out-of-state utility, at the expense of Kansans, is inexcusable,” said Stephanie Cole of the Kansas Sierra Club.
Long-term Health and Financial Consequences
The proposed new coal-fired power plant would emit millions of tons of pollutants each year over the 50+ year life of the project, posing substantial risks to human health and the environment. The pollutants emitted by the plant will include fine particulates, ozone forming constituents, hazardous pollutants such as mercury and greenhouse gases, all of which EPA has found pose serious risks to human health.
Sunflower has itself admitted that there is no need in Kansas for the vast majority of the capacity from this massive new polluting plant—instead, Tri-State, a Colorado utility, is slated to receive the majority of the power. But Tri-State’s recent long-term resource plan shows that Tri-State has no need for the capacity either, and Tri-State has not yet committed to the project. Sunflower still hasn’t paid back the federal government the millions of taxpayer dollars it owes for its existing coal plant at the Holcomb station. Given Sunflower’s massive debt and precarious financial situation, it can’t possibly finance this new coal plant itself without putting Kansas ratepayers at risk.
A Politicized Process
The permitting process requires public comments to be thoroughly considered. Instead, review of nearly 6,000 public comments apparently was cut short in an attempt to avoid new national environmental regulations, which become applicable on Jan 2, 2011.
The permitting process has been a national embarrassment for Kansans, as the state, blessed with some of the country’s best wind resources, vigorously pushes forward with plans for an unneeded coal plant, which would burn Wyoming coal while other states begin retiring their existing coal plants. This politicized fiasco was plagued with leaked emails exposing permit process manipulation, backroom deals, unwarranted involvement from the state legislature, and the abrupt and suspicious removal of former Secretary Bremby from KDHE.
“The rushed job on this permit is an injustice to the thousands of citizens who participated in the process with the belief that their input was meaningful,” said Stephanie Cole of the Kansas Sierra Club. “By turning the permitting process into a race against the clock, the state has signaled that it does not value public involvement.”
While Sunflower may now have a permit for the project, they are far from breaking ground on a new coal plant. In fact, coal plant construction has been on the wane for years, and it is unlikely Sunflower, already highly indebted to the federal government, will break coal’s multi-year losing streak anytime soon.
While Kansas is rushing to build a coal plant for a Colorado utility, which would receive most of the power, the rest of the country, including Colorado, has moved beyond coal. For example, just last week Colorado announced plans to begin retiring existing coal plants.
Recent coal plant shut down announcements:
“Under this scenario, Colorado gets power while Kansas makes a long-term commitment to an outdated coal plant other states are unwilling to take a gamble on,” said Stephanie Cole from the Sierra Club. “Kansas gets the pollution; Colorado gets the power. What a deal.”