KDHE: Coal plant permit ‘most complex’

? For months, the state environmental agency has stiff-armed attempts to nail down when it would issue a decision on whether to approve permits for construction of coal-fired electric plants in western Kansas.

But when impatient legislative leaders formed a committee this week to look into the permit process at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the agency issued a statement that offered a glimpse of what is going on.

“The proposed Sunflower Electric air permit is the largest and most complex permit application this agency has processed, and it is our intent to get it right,” KDHE Secretary Roderick Bremby said. A decision on the permit will be announced this month, Bremby said.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp. is seeking permission to build two 700-megawatt coal-burning plants near Holcomb.

Environmentalists oppose the project, saying the plant’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants will increase global climate change and harm Kansans’ health. They also note that nearly 90 percent of the power produce by the plants will be sold to out-of-state customers.

Supporters of the project say it will boost the state economy and feature state-of-the-art pollution controls. The project also will entail construction of transmission lines that will be crucial to transporting wind-generated energy produced in western Kansas, they say.

But the political rhetoric has heated up in recent weeks with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson stepping up criticism of the project.

Bremby was appointed by the governor and is a member of her Cabinet, but Sebelius has denied trying to influence his decision.

As the months have passed, project supporters have gotten nervous as KDHE refused to say when it would announce a decision.

Sunflower completed its air quality permit application June 1, 2006 – 16 months ago. A public hearing and comment phase of the application process ended in December – 10 months ago.

Steve Miller, a spokesman for Sunflower, has praised KDHE’s efforts, but added, “We think they are taking too long to decide.”

He said the permit “meets or exceeds standards in every regard.”

But Bremby said the amount of time spent has been necessary to review 650 written comments and 150 oral comments on the Sunflower permit.

The comments were placed into categories, and KDHE has developed technical responses to each category, which will be released with its permit decision later this month, he said.

Bremby said some comments required additional computer modeling that added months to the permit process. For instance, the U.S. Department of Interior raised questions about the project, saying it would reduce visibility of the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma, about 250 miles from the proposed plant site.

“Our staff has done an excellent job thoroughly evaluating and considering the significance of all the information available to us,” Bremby said.

“They provided me with the draft technical response document for review and gave me my first briefing on their recommendation three weeks ago,” he said. “We have been very careful to not release a timeline for the announcement of a decision on the Sunflower permit application until last week.”

Now a legislative committee will start looking over KDHE’s shoulder. The new Electric General Review Committee will hold its first meeting Tuesday.