EPA: State must conduct review, hold hearings on latest coal-plant proposal

? The federal EPA has essentially told the state and Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to start over in considering a permit to build a coal-burning power plant in southwest Kansas.

Sunflower Electric must submit applications for the 895-megawatt plant, and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment must conduct a comprehensive review of the proposal and open up the process for public comment. Such a process can typically take up to 18 months.

The requirements were outlined in a letter sent Wednesday from EPA Regional Administrator William Rice to Gov. Mark Parkinson, KDHE and Sunflower.

“The redesign of this new unit, as well as public input on the new project, will need to be considered in determining the form and content of any final permit,” Rice said.

The EPA statement was the latest twist in an issue that has consumed much of Kansas politics over the past several years.

In 2007, KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby denied Sunflower’s permit to build two 700-megawatt coal-fired plants, citing concerns about the effect of carbon dioxide emissions on Kansans’ health and on climate change.

Former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius stood by the decision, vetoing several bills that would have required Bremby to issue the permits. Once Sebelius stepped down to become secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, her lieutenant governor — Mark Parkinson — became governor.

Shortly after taking office, Parkinson negotiated a deal with Sunflower to allow construction of an 895-megawatt plant if the Legislature adopted a measure aimed at increasing renewable energy. The Legislature did just that.

Sunflower submitted a revised permit, but the EPA indicated more information was needed.

Since Sunflower filed its original application in 2006, much has changed in regulating air pollution and the project itself has gone through enough transformations to require a comprehensive analysis of the proposal, EPA said.

“Consistent with the approved regulations, KDHE must provide opportunity for a full 30-day public notice and comment period, making the results of KDHE’s analysis of the new project available for public review,” Rice said.

Last month, Earthjustice and Sierra Club called on the state to require a new permit process for the proposed plant, which would include public hearings.

The groups issued a statement praising EPA’s decision. “EPA is correct to require a new permitting process because this will bring out into the light of day the danger posed by this dirty coal plant which the governor and the coal power company sought to keep from the public,” said Amanda Goodin of Earthjustice.

But Parkinson’s office said he was OK with the EPA requirements.

Parkinson spokeswoman Beth Martino said the deal the governor made with Sunflower was not meant to circumvent the regulatory process.

“The governor has always known that the permit would have to conform to the Clean Air Act, and the standards in the permitting process,” Martino said. “He supports that process and would defer to the agencies that are responsible.”

And Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertel said the company was prepared for EPA’s recommendations based on discussions with federal and state officials in a meeting in late May. She said Sunflower should have the information submitted to KDHE by early to mid-fall.

“This is an ongoing process,” she said.