Judge Emmett Sullivan, in the federal district court today, effectively blocked an 895-MW coal-fired power project in western Kansas—the notorious Sunflower expansion—until a thorough environmental review of the project is finalized. The decision emphasized the significant impacts to human health that would arise if the project was constructed.
The current Sunflower Electric Power Plant in Holcomb, KS. (DOE)
The ruling is the latest chapter in a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club against the Rural Utilities Service (“RUS”), an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over its ongoing financial support for and approval of the Sunflower expansion. In March 2011, the court found that RUS had failed to consider environmental impacts of the proposed Sunflower plant expansion, in violation of federal law. The government has a financial stake in the plant because of loan arrangements made with plant owners by the federal Rural Utilities Service.
In his decision, Judge Emmett Sullivan emphasized that the expansion will need additional approval from the federal government as a result of changes to the project from earlier configurations. He enjoined the government from issuing any additional approvals pending a full “environmental impact statement” (“EIS”) disclosing all of the environmental and human health impacts of the project, which includes harm to human health as well as contribution to climate change. An EIS must also discuss “alternatives” to a proposed project, such as renewable energy projects and energy conservation.
“The people of Kansas and downwind states will now get their legitimate public health concerns heard,” said Jan Hasselman of Earthjustice who led the lawsuit on behalf of the Sierra Club. “Once the facts of this dirty and dangerous project are exposed to the public, we think that the federal government will have to just say no.”
“The financial and public health risks involved in the development of this project have always made it a bad deal for those of us who will have to breathe dirty air and pay unnecessary costs for this coal plant,” said Lee Messenger of Garden City, an opponent of the expansion. “Sunflower needs to be accountable for the debt it has already created with its existing coal plant, not get in over its head again with another risky and unneeded coal plant."
“From a public health and environmental perspective, coal-fired power is the most expensive option available,” said Scott Allegrucci of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “We are confident that once the environmental impacts of this plant are considered in light of alternatives, the project’s impacts will be unacceptable and it will be rejected.”
According to recent American Wind Energy Association fourth quarter data, Kansas has the largest number of wind projects under construction in the nation. This decision comes as utility companies and developers across the country are abandoning planned coal plants as unnecessary and too costly and are moving toward a greater reliance on clean energy.
In this lawsuit, Sierra Club argued that the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provided extensive financial support—including writing off millions of dollars of public debt—so that Sunflower could build the new power plant. These agreements left the RUS with close oversight of Sunflower’s business operations and required federal approval to proceed with the Holcomb project. Much of Sunflower’s financial struggles stem from overbuilding capacity at their existing unit, Holcomb I, which is a scenario that could be repeated if Holcomb II is constructed since neither Sunflower nor Tri-State, the Colorado partner, has demonstrated the project is needed. The lawsuit argued that, as an essentially federal project, greater environmental review and consideration of alternatives—like greater conservation and renewables—is required.
Meanwhile, when Kathleen Sebelius was governor, the state rejected the proposed plant because of its potential, massive contributions to climate change. While popular with citizens, the decision upset coal-connected legislators. But, try as they did, they couldn’t overcome Sebelius’ vetoes.
Even when Sebelius left office—and was replaced by a governor who quickly gave Sunflower the green light—the coal lobby was stymied by legal pressures and by Rod Bremby, the state environmental health chief who had first rejected the plant permit under Sebelius. He held the line for three years until finally being fired over the issue. His successor promptly issued the permit last December. An appeal of the air permit is pending in the Kansas Supreme Court.