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Sunflower coal plant permit expected this year

9/17/2010

By JOHN HANNA

By JOHN HANNA

Associated Press

TOPEKA -- A new coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas is on track to obtain a state environmental permit by year's end so it wouldn't have to comply with new federal rules on greenhouse gas emissions, officials confirmed Thursday.

Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp. had worried it might not get its permit until next year. Federal rules taking effect Jan. 2 require new power plants to use the best available technology for controlling greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

A legislative supporter of the $2.8 billion project Thursday acknowledged "some angst" over the permitting process at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The department already has taken public comments about the plan for a plant outside Holcomb in Finney County. However, it plans a second comment period because of problems with environmental modeling software used by the utility.

A key issue for Sunflower and environmentalists has been whether the new public comment period would last 30 days -- the minimum required -- or 45 days.

Spokeswoman Kristi Pankratz told the Associated Press on Thursday the department decided on the shorter period. KDHE sent the secretary of state's office a notice to be published next week, listing the public comment period as running through Oct. 23, with an additional public hearing Oct. 25 in Topeka.

The department's staff still must review the comments before Secretary Rod Bremby makes a decision.

"We're hoping to have that by the end of the year," Pankratz said.

State Sen. Janis Lee, a Kensington Democrat who strongly supports Sunflower's plans, also said a decision should be reached by the end of the year in a normal permitting process.

"I believe that there was communication between the governor's office and the secretary, and the decision was made on 30 days" for the comment period, Lee told the AP, adding the decision was made Wednesday.

Before the decision, Lee said, "There was some angst."

Environmentalists see the shorter comment period as a sign the department is rushing a decision on whether Sunflower gets the air-quality permit it needs to build its plant. They noted the first comment period lasted 45 days.

"Unfortunately, what is supposed to be a transparent and fair process has been politicized," said Stephanie Cole, a Sierra Club spokeswoman. "Attempting to rush the process will undermine the public's ability to participate."

In an e-mail dated Monday and obtained by the AP, Sunflower's vice president of member service and external affairs, Clare Gustin, had accused Bremby of "gaming the process" to delay a permit. Cindy Hertel, a spokeswoman for Sunflower, said the e-mail was an attempt to keep supporters of the project updated.

"My thought is to have multiple contacts with both the governor and Bremby, hoping that someone can positively change this situation," Gustin wrote.

Hertel said if the permit weren't issued until January and the federal greenhouse gas rules applied, Sunflower would spend additional time persuading the EPA its current technology represents the best available for controlling emissions.

Also, Sunflower has worked on proposals for additional coal-fired capacity since 2001.

"We've been at this a long time," she said.

Bremby rejected an earlier plan by Sunflower to build two coal-fired plants, deciding in October 2007, more than a year after his staff drafted a proposed air-quality permit. The proposed permit for the latest project was finished June 30.

The Monday e-mail said Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson, who supports the project, was meeting Thursday with key supporters of the utility's plans. AP confirmed meetings involving those mentioned in the e-mail, though Parkinson spokeswoman Amy Jordan Wooden said the governor isn't involved in the permitting process.

Lee confirmed a Thursday meeting with Parkinson. Rich Taylor, president of the Kansas State Building and Construction Trades Council, met with Parkinson for about 15 minutes for what he later described as an update about the project.

State Treasurer Dennis McKinney, another Democrat who supports the Sunflower project, had a meeting with Parkinson scheduled but missed it because of other commitments.

Jordan Wooden declined to discuss Parkinson's non-public schedule. But she also said she's not aware of any conversations between Parkinson and Bremby about the permitting process.

"This is a KDHE process," she said. "We are not doing anything to slow down this process. We are not doing anything to accelerate this process."