Failed duty

An email trail reveals a stunning betrayal of the public trust by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

This is not how government is supposed to work.

An email trail examined by a Kansas City newspaper reveals a disturbingly cozy relationship between the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Sunflower Electric Power Corp., which was seeking a KDHE permit to build a coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas. After several years of contentious dealings during which a permit for the plant was denied several times, it appears that, during the closing days of Gov. Mark Parkinson’s term, elements of the permit process were virtually turned over to Sunflower officials.

Key among those was KDHE’s decision to simply forward public comments about the power plant to Sunflower officials who then supplied responses. In many cases, those answers, or something very much like them were simply passed along in a way that made them appear to be unbiased responses that were researched and supplied by KDHE.

According to the news report, KDHE received almost 6,000 comments from various experts and members of the public concerning the power plant project. Although it had taken KDHE staff about 10 months to review and respond to almost 800 public comments it received in 2007, the department was able to deal with the 6,000 comments in about seven weeks.

It was no secret that this project was on the fast track after Parkinson bartered a deal in May 2009 that would allow one coal-fired plant to be built. Sunflower submitted a new permit application in January 2010. The permit still was under review when KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby was dismissed from his post on Nov. 2, 2010. The next month, acting KDHE Secretary John Mitchell approved the permit.

During that seven weeks, the emails, obtained through a public records request, show that KDHE officials boiled the 6,000 comments down to about 275 questions, which it sent to Sunflower to obtain written responses. The emails also show instances where KDHE staff members asked Sunflower officials whether the department should even respond to some comments. The relationship was so tight that a Sunflower employee was sent to Topeka to help set up a computer program to organize the public comments for KDHE and Sunflower.

What the emails reveal is a relationship that is highly inappropriate for a state agency and a company it has the duty to regulate. It wouldn’t be unusual for KDHE to seek input or technical information from Sunflower, but to allow the utility to pick the questions it will address and then supply the answers was, in Bremby’s words, “a total abdication of responsibility.”

The conduct of KDHE in this matter transcends any judgment on the merits of the Sunflower application. Whether or not they believe the southwest power plant should be built, Kansans should be extremely concerned by the process by which that permit was approved. KDHE’s charge was to make an independent, unbiased appraisal of the power plant project and the various issues raised in public comments about the permit.

The trail of email officials left behind indicates they failed miserably in that task.