Topeka State officials on Thursday approved construction of an 895-megawatt coal-burning power plant, but the Environmental Protection Agency immediately announced it would review the matter.
The decision by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to issue a permit for the plant represented the latest development in a bitter political struggle that has been going on for more than three years.
"It is time to move forward with this project that Kansans justly deserve," said Earl Watkins, president and chief executive officer of Sunflower Electric Power Corp., which sought the permit.
But environmentalists said the permitting process had become a national embarrassment, corrupted by politics, and that the proposed plant's 7 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year would harm the environment and affect climate change.
KDHE issued a construction permit to Hays-based Sunflower Electric to build the plant in southwest Kansas near Holcomb.
The plant has the capacity to power up to 500,000 homes, but most of those homes would be in Colorado because most of the plant would be owned by Colorado-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.
"Kansas gets the pollution. Colorado gets the power. What a deal," said Stephanie Cole, a spokeswoman for the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club.
But KDHE Acting Secretary John Mitchell defended the permit.
"I am confident that we have the best permit possible for Kansas," said Mitchell. "The Sunflower proposed expansion project meets all current state and federal requirements for issuing the permit," he said.
Mitchell's decision reversed a decision from three years ago that rocked both state and national politics.
In October 2007, then-KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby rejected Sunflower's proposal for two 700-megawatt coal-burning plants, citing the environmental and health effects of carbon dioxide emissions. It was believed to be the first time in U.S. history that a governmental body rejected a power plant based on concerns over climate change and CO2.
The Kansas Legislature tried to overturn Bremby's decision, but then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius backed him up. When Sebelius left to serve in President Barack Obama's cabinet, Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson became governor.
Parkinson immediately brokered a deal with Sunflower Electric to allow an 895-megawatt plant in exchange for the Legislature approving renewable energy legislation.
Bremby stayed on at KDHE as Sunflower sought the new permit.
As the date approached for tougher federal rules on CO2 emissions from power plants to take effect on Jan. 2, Parkinson tried to re-assign Bremby, who refused and then stepped down. Parkinson said his decision to change Bremby's job had nothing to do with Sunflower's pending permit.
Environmentalists said KDHE made its decision on Thursday to beat the upcoming federal regulations. In recent weeks, KDHE employees working on the permit have been working on weekends.
"By turning the permitting process into a race against the clock, the state has signaled that it does not value public involvement," Cole, with the Sierra Club, said.
But Acting Secretary Mitchell said the agency diligently responded to all issues raised by the public in thousands of comments made to the agency. "We were ready to make a decision," he said. Mitchell noted that he was part of the staff review that had recommended approval of Sunflower's previous permit, which Bremby denied.
Regional EPA Administrator Karl Brooks had already signaled that the agency would be looking at KDHE's work.
On Thursday, he issued a release reaffirming that.
"EPA's review will assess whether all requirements of the Clean Air Act and State Implementation Plan have been met and that the environment and public health will be protected," Brooks said.
Mitchell said he was confident that EPA would find that KDHE did a good job and that the permit protected human health and the environment. He said he couldn't consider the effect of greenhouse gases because regulations on those are not in state nor federal law at this time.
-- Statehouse reporter Scott Rothschild can be reached at 785-423-0668.