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Sunflower weathers wild year

9/11/2007

By SARAH KESSINGER

Harris News Service

TOPEKA -- Sunflower Electric Cooperative started this year recuperating from the fierce grip of an ice storm that crushed 21 of its largest steel transmission towers across western Kansas.

In a mid-summer tempest, straight-line winds tore through company equipment at Sunflower's Holcomb power plant, leaving a trail of damage estimated at $1 million.

A company official at the Hays headquarters said Monday they hope the wild weather woes are over and that this fall, instead, will bring news of a long-awaited state permit to build two 700-megawatt coal-fired power plants at the Holcomb site.

"Between the ice storm and this wind storm, this has been a busy, busy year," said Steve Miller, Sunflower spokesman.

But for the moment, authorities say they're still mulling the permit application behind closed doors at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in Topeka.

"We're still working," KDHE spokesman Joe Blubaugh said Monday.

The agency also is finalizing a 125-page, point-by-point response to hundreds of public letters and e-mails received last year both for and against the permit.

The response probably will be issued about the same time as the permit decision, Blubaugh said.

Miller said the company acknowledges this is an unusual case for KDHE and a "huge undertaking" for them to respond to the comments received from Kansas residents and protests from a group of northeastern states.

"We believe it's got to be really, really close," Miller said of the decision's release, "but anything I say is absolute speculation."

"We need to see the secretary sign it and get on down the road," he added.

Asked whether they expect the state to face a court challenge from environmentalists if the permit is issued, Miller wasn't sure.

"We hope that there isn't, but if there is one we wouldn't be surprised," he said. "Considering all the comments the agency has gone through, I can't image they haven't looked under every rock that exists. That's why we hope there won't be one."

The permit application has drawn national interest because of the size of the power plants and their projected greenhouse gas output. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has said in the past that she'll leave the permit decision to KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby.

Sebelius' staff couldn't be reached Monday for comment on whether the governor would discuss the issue during a joint appearance later this week with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at the National Press Club in Washington.