Collusion in Kansas Force-Feeds Coal Power

Either the courts or the EPA should put the brakes on the Sunflower project. A coal plant that will affect air quality for decades is too important to be the end result of a polluted process.

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Americans are worried about their government. We imagine backroom deals are cut, fates are foretold and the little guy always gets shafted because powerful interests own the cops.

Recent events in Kansas prove these fears can be spot-on.

The Kansas City Star has unearthed emails showing the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), the agency responsible for enforcing the federal Clean Air Act, had an “improper relationship” with an air permit applicant.

That permit would allow an 895 MW coal-fired power plant to be built by the Sunflower Electric Power Corporation. Opponents say this plant isn’t needed and will pollute Kansans while most of the power will go to Colorado.

The emails show that 6,000 public comments were summed up into 275 questions. KDHE sent these questions to Sunflower to get their take on how to respond to public opposition. Some of the responses KDHE produced as their own work were nearly verbatim copies of the responses suggested by Sunflower. KDHE even helped Sunflower set up a computer program to process the questions.

A Lawrence Journal World editorial today concludes that KDHE “failed miserably” at their duty to be the independent, unbiased analysis body of public concerns with the permit.

An editorial in The KC Star lays the blame for this scandal squarely at the feet of former governor Mark Parkinson, and his fellow coal advocates.

“The permit process is a shameful legacy of former Kansas governor Mark Parkinson. The Democrat reversed the refusal of his Democratic predecessor, Kathleen Sebelius, to grant a permit for a coal-burning plant in western Kansas. Sebelius and her secretary of health and environment, Roderick Bremby, said the plant would pollute Kansas air while generating most of its power for Colorado. Parkinson fired Bremby in early November after Sunflower officials said they thought he was slowing down the permit process. With Bremby gone, regulators worked nights and weekends to process Sunflower’s permit.”

In response to the mess, Republican state legislators defended the agency’s collusion with an applicant as simply pro-business.

“Being cozy with business is not necessarily bad,” said Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican. “Kansas needs to be open for business. We don’t have mountains. We don’t have oceans. If we don’t allow for people to make it easy to make a profit in Kansas, there really is no reason to come here.”

Sadly, Kansans are learning that even when they speak up, it may not matter if state agencies are in bed with the very industries they are supposed to regulate. The Star suggests a way out of this mess that could help restore the public’s faith in government:

“Either the courts or the EPA should put the brakes on the Sunflower project. A coal plant that will affect air quality for decades is too important to be the end result of a polluted process.”

We agree. Legal steps by Earthjustice may help that process along. As described by Amanda Goodin, Earthjustice attorney representing Sierra Club in this case.

“EPA has the obligation to enforce the Clean Air Act and protect air quality and public health throughout the country; specifically, EPA has the obligation to object to permits that don’t comply with the Act, like the Sunflower permit.”

An Earthjustice staff member from 1999 until 2015, Brian used outreach and partnership skills to cover many issues, including advocacy campaign efforts to promote a healthy ocean.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.