Sebelius still mulling ban on coal-fired plants

? Gov. Kathleen Sebelius still is considering a request from environmentalists that she ban new coal-fired plants, amid questions and criticism about a western Kansas utility’s plans to build three of them to generate electricity.

The future of Sunflower Electric Power Corp.’s proposed $2.7 billion project in Finney County rests with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. It must decide whether to issue a permit saying the project would meet federal air quality standards.

Attorneys general in eight states, including California and New York, worry about the project, and Kansas’ health department has heard criticism from across the state. Environmentalists have asked Sebelius to impose a moratorium on coal-fired plants.

“Governor Sebelius is considering all potential options,” spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said Tuesday. “This is a very complex issue, and Governor Sebelius and her staff are following it closely.”

Sunflower’s capacity to generate electricity would grow nearly seven times larger when the project was completed in 2013, with much of the additional power being exported to Colorado. The project has the backing of many local officials, who believe it could generate 2,000 construction jobs and permanently expand the local economy.

KDHE officials ended their hearings last week. Secretary Rod Bremby said he can’t say when the agency will have a decision on an air quality permit.

Sunflower says its project would meet all federal air quality regulations, and mercury emissions from burning coal would be 79 percent lower than federal limits.

However, even federal officials have raised questions.

In a Dec. 15 letter to the KDHE, the Fish and Wildlife Service chastised the state for not notifying it about the potential permit, saying emissions from the plant could affect the visibility around the Wichita Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Oklahoma, about 260 miles away.

And, the Fish and Wildlife Service said, based on models the health department used in drafting its proposed permit, “Visibility impacts are likely to have been underestimated.”

KDHE spokesman Joe Blubaugh said agency officials found federal law to be ambiguous about whether the Fish and Wildlife Service had to be notified. But, he added, “If they could do it all over again, they’d probably contact them ahead of time.”

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency questioned the sulfur dioxide emissions allowed by the permit.

Its regional office in Kansas City, Kan., suggested the limits were too high, based on the relatively clean coal Sunflower plans to burn.

Sunflower might be forced to use dirtier coal at times, but such “infrequent events” should not be used setting long-term standards, the EPA said in a November letter. The federal agency said an appropriate standard would be at least 21 percent lower.

Sunflower, with about 118,000 western Kansas customers, proposes to build the new coal-fired plants next to an existing one outside Holcomb with a generating capacity of 360 megawatts.

Each new coal-fired plant would generate 700 megawatts of power, for a total of 2,100 megawatts.

Charles Benjamin, attorney and lobbyist for the Sierra Club’s Kansas chapter, said some other states are concerned the new generating units would make the Holcomb site the largest coal-burning complex west of the Mississippi River.