Dozens voice concerns at final coal plant hearing

Karin Pagel-Meiners, Lawrence, speaks during public comment hearing on the proposal for an 895-megawatt coal-burning power plant in southwest Kansas. The hearing was held Monday at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Topeka.

? The Colorado-based electric supplier that has been a major force in trying to get a coal-burning power plant built in Kansas sees the 895-megawatt unit as simply an option in its long-term plans.

Jerry King, Spearville, director of marketing and communications at The Victory Electric Cooperative, a supporter of the proposed coal-burning plant in southwestern Kansas, left, and Dane Zahorsky, of Kansas City, Mo., an opponent of the proposed plant, visit after each testified during hearings in Topeka. Final public comment was taken Monday on the proposal for an 895-megawatt coal-burning power plant near Holcomb.

Lee Boughey, a spokesman for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, testified Monday in favor of a permit for its partner, Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp., to build the plant near Holcomb.

In comments made later to the Lawrence Journal-World, Boughey said Tri-State would support the permit process for the plant before the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and in court during the likely future litigation over the proposal.

If a final permit is secured, Boughey said that Tri-State would then decide whether the project still made economic sense for its customers.

Tri-State is “looking at numerous options to meet its resource needs. Holcomb is one of those,” he said.

He said issuance of the permit by the state would be the first step of the process, and then judicial review. If the permit survives, “then we decide whether to do it in the best interest of our customers.”

Tri-State includes 44 electric cooperatives serving 1.5 million people in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming.

Of the 895-megawatt unit, 78 percent, or 695 megawatts, would be owned by Tri-State and used out of state. At peak capacity, the plant could power nearly half a million homes.

About 150 people attended Monday’s hearing, which was the final scheduled public meeting on the project that has dominated Kansas politics for more than three years. KDHE has received more than 5,600 comments on the proposed project. The number of those for and against hasn’t been sorted out yet, officials said.

Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, repeated many of the issues that supporters of the project have traditionally cited.

The project would provide jobs “at a time when our economy badly needs a lift,” Morris said. A new economic study by coal-producing utilities said the project would produce 1,900 construction jobs generating $400 million in total income, and then 88 permanent jobs with an annual payroll of $6.5 million.

Morris also pointed to the additional electricity and transmission lines that would be built, which, he and others said, would prompt more wind power development.

But opponents noted the health and environmental problems caused by climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal.

Karin Pagel-Meiners of Lawrence said Kansas was wasting time debating the issue instead of focusing on renewable energy.

“Other states are moving ahead, and Kansas is falling behind,” she said.

The Kansas Sierra Club voiced its objection.

“If this is purely a ‘place-holding exercise’ for Tri-State, I would respectfully request that Tri-State initiate and undergo this permitting process in Colorado,” said Stephanie Cole, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. “Kansas has already spent an inexcusable amount of public time on a coal that is not needed for our state.”

Just over three years ago, KDHE Secretary Roderick Bremby denied a permit sought by Sunflower Electric for a larger project.

“I believe it would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing,” Bremby had said.

The denial was touted as the first time a government agency in the United States blocked construction of a coal-burning plant based on its effects on climate change.

The Kansas Legislature, dominated by supporters of the project, tried to overturn Bremby’s decision with legislation, but each time was thwarted by vetoes by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

In 2009, Sebelius left Kansas to become secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

That elevated Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson into the governor’s job. Almost immediately Parkinson crafted a deal with Sunflower Electric to bless the project — in exchange for reducing it from two 700-megawatt units and getting legislators to approve renewable energy legislation.

The deal was done, and Sunflower re-entered the permit process.

Joe Douglas, a Lawrence resident, testified Monday in opposition to the plant and said that nothing had changed between Bremby’s permit denial in 2007 and now except the political situation.

“The issue is short-term profit versus long-term ill effects,” Douglas said, adding that Bremby should deny the permit. “I call on Secretary Bremby to simply do the right thing, and become a hero to me, my children and my grandchildren and to the people of Kansas.”