Sierra Club tries anew to block coal plant

? An environmental group said Monday it has launched a new legal attack on a proposed coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas.

The Sierra Club filed a request Friday in U.S. District Court in Washington for an order to force the federal Rural Utilities Service to study the potential environmental effects of the coal plant and to look for alternatives for generating electricity.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp. wants to build the plant in Finney County. The Hays-based utility and Gov. Mark Parkinson brokered a deal in May to clear state regulatory hurdles to the plant’s construction and win passage of legislation promoting renewable energy and conservation.

The deal had bipartisan legislative support, but environmentalists oppose the coal-fired plant. The RUS, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, must sign off on Sunflower’s plans because the agency guaranteed past construction loans for the company.

“The federal government needs to evaluate options before it moves ahead with a risky project,” said Stephanie Cole, a Sierra Club spokeswoman.

The group is being represented by attorneys for Earthjustice, another national organization hoping to stop the plant.

The USDA did not immediately respond to phone calls or e-mails from The Associated Press seeking comment late Monday. Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertel said the utility disagrees with the environmentalists’ position that federal law requires an environmental study, which she called unnecessary.

She said the utility was not surprised by the court filing.

The new plant would have a capacity of 895 megawatts, enough to meet the peak electricity demands of 448,000 households, according to one state estimate. Much of the new power would be sold to out-of-state electric cooperatives.

Sunflower previously wanted to build two 700-megawatt plants in Finney County. But in October 2007, the state rejected an air quality permit, citing the plants’ potential carbon dioxide emissions.

The dispute between the Democratic governor’s office and the utility spilled into the Republican-controlled Legislature, which blocked “green” energy legislation and tried unsuccessfully to override the permit denial. Parkinson’s deal with Sunflower to allow one coal-fired plant also required lawmakers to approve that legislation.