Topeka A Senate panel on Thursday started the legislative lifting necessary to build a $3.5 billion power plant complex in western Kansas that would be among the nation's largest.
The Natural Resources Committee approved a measure sought by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. that would help the Hays-based company operate a landfill to dump ashes from burned coal.
Sunflower also is seeking approval of a bill that would shorten the appeals process currently available to those who would oppose the plants' construction.
The bills are needed, Sunflower officials said, to build three coal-fired plants of 650 megawatts each next to the company's existing 360-megawatt plant near Holcomb, just west of Garden City.
The total output of 2,310 megawatts would put the complex among the largest in the nation. The projects also would be the first major power plants built in Kansas since Wolf Creek nuclear plant went online in 1985 near Burlington.
"I don't know how a fair-minded person could look at this and think of it as being anything but wonderful," said Steve Miller, senior manager of external affairs for Sunflower.
But some have questions.
Sen. Marci Francisco of Lawrence, the ranking Democrat on the committee, abstained from voting on the bill, citing concerns about using Kansas water.
She noted that two of the proposed three plants will be owned by Colorado investors and produce power for Colorado. Ownership of the third plant is being negotiated.
"We fight a battle to get water from Colorado, and now what we are doing is taking that water and making electricity and selling it back across the line," Francisco said, referring to a long-running legal battle between Kansas and Colorado for waters of the Arkansas River.
But Miller said the use of water in Kansas to produce electricity for export was no different from what farmers and ranchers do when their products, such as wheat or corn, are sold out of state.
Concerns also have been raised about air pollution, mercury emissions from plant smokestacks and the use of groundwater to produce electricity in an area where the state is taking actions to reduce depletion of water supplies.
"The way mercury pollutes is that it goes into water bodies and is taken up by fish," said Craig Volland of the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club.
"Where it will start being dangerous is to people in eastern Kansas, because the prevailing weather patterns are west to east," Volland said.
Miller said the plants were expected to produce about 250 pounds of mercury per year, and that the effect would be "minuscule." Coal-fired plants produce 40 percent of all mercury pollution nationally.
In addressing the groundwater concerns, Miller said the company had secured numerous water rights. When those water rights are converted to industrial use, they are reduced 40 percent, according to state law. So the project will use less water than under the former water rights owners, he said.
But Volland said Sunflower's proposal to reduce the legal appeals process was especially troublesome. The measure has been placed in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and as of yet no hearing date has been scheduled.
"A plant that is this large - one of the largest coal-fired plants in the country - it deserves the full scrutiny that is always available to the public," Volland said.
The bill would limit appeals of plant permits to the Kansas Court of Appeals. Currently, appeals are first heard at the district court level and can proceed all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court.
Miller said the shortened appeals process was needed because lengthy delays during the legal battles could kill the project.
Sunflower wants to start construction in summer 2007 with completion scheduled for 2013, he said.