KDHE had close ties with Sunflower Electric Co.

Holcomb 1, pictured above, is operating at 85 percent capacity. The Holcomb Station Project proposed by Sunflower Electric Power Corporation would add a second plant that would operate at 90 percent capacity.

? The Kansas Department of Health and Environment allowed operators of the Sunflower Electric Co. to answer public questions about the coal-fired electric plant that were intended to help shape permit requirements for the facility, according to a newspaper report.

Emails between KDHE and Sunflower showed KDHE, which has promised an impartial review of the permit for the proposed plant, allowed Sunflower to respond to questions from the public, and then passed some of the answers off as its own, according to The Kansas City Star. Those questions and answers were supposed to help shape the plant permit, which will determine emissions releases for the plant.

KDHE said they couldn’t comment because of a pending appeal of the permit filed by the Sierra Club, which opposes the plant because of its potential for pollution. In a statement, Hays-based Sunflower also said it could not comment at length because of the ongoing litigation over its $2.8 billion project but that it had done nothing wrong.

The Star reported that during the months the department was writing the 275-page permit, KDHE allowed Sunflower to respond to questions from the public and then passed some of the answers off as their own.

Proponents of the proposed plant near Holcomb in western Kansas say it will bring crucial new jobs to a depressed area. Opponents say the plant will pollute, draw down water reserves and provide electricity that isn’t needed in Kansas. Colorado residents will receive much of it.

Construction was blocked in 2007 when Kansas became the first state to deny a building permit because of health concerns about greenhouse gases. But a change in governors led to a 2009 settlement agreement between then-Gov. Mark Parkinson and Sunflower that overrode the greenhouse gases concerns and allowed the permitting process to begin again. In December 2010, KDHE approved the building permit.

Soon after, the Star sought the email exchanges between KDHE staff and Sunflower employees over 18 months.

The newspaper reported Saturday that the emails show the department selected 238 comments that were substantive enough to merit a reply and inclusion in the permit. Sometimes, many people had asked similar questions, and those were grouped as one comment. KDHE gave Sunflower access to the 238 comments, and the company appears to have written responses to almost all of them.

A spot check of 22 Sunflower responses shows that the department took 18 of them, at times almost verbatim, and published them as part of the final permit without acknowledging Sunflower as the author.

Scott Allegrucci, an opponent of the plant who submitted questions that were answered by Sunflower employees, said KDHE’s relationship with Sunflower was a “horrific transgression in terms of public trust.”

In a statement, Sunflower said it could not comment at length because of the ongoing litigation but that it had done nothing wrong:

“Within the air permit process, all three entities — KDHE, the applicant and the public — have specific roles and responsibilities. Sunflower fulfilled its role and responsibilities accordingly.”

Some state legislators said they were not necessarily alarmed by the close relationship.

“Being cozy with business is not necessarily bad,” said Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican. “Kansas needs to be open for business. We don’t have mountains; we don’t have oceans. If we don’t allow for people to make it easy to make a profit in Kansas, there really is no reason to come here.”

Rep. Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican, said the pattern of responses raises a question of whether (KDHE) fulfilled their responsibility to exercise an independent judgment.” But she also said it’s possible that the department had somehow researched the Sunflower responses once they were submitted.