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Holcomb plant still on back burner

7/8/2013

TOPEKA (AP) -- A proposed $2.8 billion coal-fired electric plant in southwest Kansas still is on the back burner because of unresolved political and legal hurdles.

The 895-megawatt generating station near Holcomb hit its first wall in 2007, when then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius withheld a permit sought by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. of Hays because of the plant's potential environmental impact. Republican lawmakers who supported the plant passed four bills in 2008 and 2009 aimed at pushing the project forward, but Sebelius vetoed all of them, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

After Sebelius became secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, her replacement, Mark Parkinson, brokered a compromise that allowed the plant in exchange for expansion of wind farms and renewable energy standards in the state.

But while Parkinson's "green" agenda moved forward, Sunflower's Finney County project did not. Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, called that "lamentable."

Sunflower secured the state permit necessary to proceed in 2010, but state and federal lawsuits filed by interests seeking to block expansion of the state's coal footprint have stymied any development.

The U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in May rejected a request from Sunflower to overturn a 2012 federal judge's ruling that required the Rural Utilities Service -- part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- to complete an environmental study before deciding whether to approve the new plant.

"Until the plant receives a full environmental review, this unnecessary, money-losing pollution project is done," said Amanda Goodin, an attorney with the California environmental law group Earthjustice, which represents the Sierra Club.

Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertel said the utility cooperative still is interested in adding a second generating unit to the Holcomb station, despite all the litigation and policy complications.

"Our board still views generation diversity as the way to keep member rates as affordable as possible," Hertel said.

Three-fourths of the energy that would be generated by the second plant would be reserved for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association of Westminster, Colo. The wholesale supplier is owned by 44 cooperatives throughout a 200,000-square-mile service territory across Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming.

Sunflower and Tri-State announced in 2005 an agreement on construction of new power facilities. The Holcomb project initially called for three units with a total capacity of 2,100 megawatts, but that was trimmed to two before it ran into resistance from Sebelius and state regulators.