Moratorium sought on coal-fired plants

? Sierra Club wants Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to prevent the construction of new coal-fired electric plants and appoint a commission to study their potential environmental effects.

The request Tuesday from the group’s Kansas chapter was a response to plans by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build three generating plants that burn coal to produce power outside Holcomb in southwest Kansas.

The Department of Health and Environment is reviewing a potential permit saying the project meets federal air quality standards, which Sunflower needs to go forward. The agency plans hearings Oct. 24 in Garden City and Oct. 26 in Topeka.

The Sierra Club’s concerns are broader, however. Charles Benjamin, the Kansas chapter’s attorney, said it also worries that the project will increase mercury emissions, deplete water supplies and discourage wind-energy projects.

The new coal-fired plants would make Sunflower’s total generating capacity nearly seven times greater than it is now. Much of the new power would be exported to Colorado.

“We believe this will effectively kill the development of wind energy for the next 50 or 60 years. Once you build these coal plants, what incentive is there for utilities to utilize wind energy?” Benjamin said during an interview. “I have a 9-year-old grandson, and he’ll be in his 60s when these plants are decommissioned.”

Hearing schedule

These are the hearings planned by the state Department of Health and Environment on an air-quality permit for three proposed coal-fired generating plants to be built by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. near Holcomb:

  • 7 p.m. Oct. 24, Finney County Office Building, County Commission room, 311 N. Ninth St., Garden City.
  • 9 a.m. Oct. 26, Curtis State Office Building, Azure Room, fourth floor, 1000 S.W. Jackson St., Topeka.

The national Sierra Club organization sees the southwest Kansas projects as part of a larger, national push to build coal-fired plants. Such facilities will pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, accelerating global warming, said Dave Hamilton, director of the group’s warming and energy project.

“We need regulators in Kansas to start having a larger eye on what’s going on,” Hamilton said at a news conference during a break in a state-sponsored conference on renewable energy.

Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said the governor would consider a moratorium only if KDHE and an energy council she appointed two years ago recommended it “as part of a comprehensive energy plan.”

“She’ll continue to focus on both wind energy and clean coal technologies as we work to harness potential energy in Kansas,” Corcoran said.

Sunflower spokesman Steve Miller said he doubts Sebelius will seriously consider a moratorium. The utility expects the project to create 2,000 construction jobs and have an $8 billion economic impact on Kansas.

“I just can’t imagine that she would do anything to risk this project,” Miller said. “I just can’t believe, ever, in my wildest dreams, that she would give something like this serious consideration.”

Miller also disputed the Sierra Club’s argument that the project represents a serious environmental hazard, saying the group opposes the construction of any coal-fired plants.

The state’s permit is designed to ensure that new plants meet standards limiting the emissions of pollutants such as mercury, lead, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. The EPA, through the state, requires utilities to use the best pollution-control technologies available, Miller said.

But Sierra Club officials worry that the state permit might not go far enough in limiting emissions from the project.

“It will also – I think this is very critical – be the single largest new emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States,” said Bill Griffith, the Kansas chapter’s chairman. “Frankly, we feel it’s immoral.”

Sunflower’s total generating capacity is 360 megawatts, with the utility serving 115,000 western Kansas customers. Under its project, each new coal-fired plant would generate 700 megawatts of power.

Miller said Sunflower’s current annual mercury emissions are about 250 pounds in burning 1.5 million tons of coal. He said total emissions won’t increase even when all three new plants are running.

But the Sierra Club and other environmental groups consider the EPA’s standards for mercury emissions too lax and say even the EPA acknowledges that one in six women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their blood to endanger a developing fetus. Mercury in coal eventually ends up in rivers and lakes and then, fish.

Benjamin said there’s nothing in the permit to force Sunflower to keep its promise that the project won’t increase mercury emissions.

“It goes up the smokestack, and it comes down in rain,” Benjamin said.