Environmentalists say provision in House-approved farm bill would make it easier to build coal-burning Sunflower plant

? Buried in the farm bill that was approved by the U.S. House is a provision that environmentalists say would make it easier to build a coal-burning electric power plant in southwest Kansas.

Environmentalists have won federal court decisions that will require an environmental review before Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp. can build the $2.8 billion, 895-megawatt plant near Holcomb.

But a section of the House’s farm bill would essentially negate that environmental review requirement, according to Bill Griffith, energy chair of the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, and Amanda Goodin, an attorney for Earthjustice, which has been fighting the plant in court.

“It’s very disappointing and short-sighted,” Griffith said.

He said he wasn’t sure how the provision had been put in the farm bill. Cindy Hertel, a spokeswoman for Sunflower Electric, said she had no knowledge of the provision.

The House-approved farm bill also stripped out food stamps and was recently sent to the Senate, which has passed a separate farm bill. A conference committee will soon discuss differences between the House and Senate versions.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan ordered the Rural Utilities Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to complete an environmental study before granting any approvals to Sunflower for the project. The federal agency must sign off on decisions about the plant because it provided past financial support to Sunflower and oversaw corporate reorganizations.

The provision in the farm bill “would get around the federal court decision, but they have a lot of other obstacles in their way,” said Goodin.The plant still faces other regulatory, financial and legal hurdles, she said.

The fight over the project has been going on for years. Under the proposal, although the plant would be built in Kansas, most of the power would be used by Colorado customers of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.

In 2007, Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Rod Bremby denied a permit to Sunflower Electric citing the effects of the project’s carbon dioxide emissions on health and climate change.

The Legislature tried to override Bremby’s decision but each time was thwarted by vetoes by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

When Sebelius became secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, her successor Mark Parkinson almost immediately crafted a deal with Sunflower to bless the project.

In November 2010, Bremby was removed after refusing to resign as head of the KDHE to coordinate the cabinet transition from Parkinson’s administration to that of incoming Gov. Sam Brownback. Bremby said he was willing to help with the transition, but didn’t want to leave office to do so.

After Bremby’s departure, replacement John Mitchell approved a permit for the plant, just before new federal regulations on greenhouse gases went into effect.