Saturday, September 1, 2012

Health concerns raised at hearing on proposed coal-burning power plant

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA — An official with the Colorado group that will receive most of the electricity from the proposed coal-burning power plant in southwest Kansas, said Friday that the project remains an "option."

The comment from Lee Boughey, a spokesman for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Co., was made after the Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments from attorneys over whether the state-issued construction permit for the 895-megawatt unit should be dissolved.

"This continues to be one of a number of long-term options to meet our members power needs," Boughey said, referring to the plant that is proposed to be built near Holcomb. Three-quarters of the plant's capacity would serve the power needs of customers in Colorado.

But environmentalists are challenging the permit.

Amanda Goodin, representing the Sierra Club, told the court that the permit failed to provide adequate protections against air pollution, specifically nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide. She said the plant's emissions would lead to "serious health consequences" for Kansans. She said the standard allowed under the permit for mercury was "100 percent weaker" than current rules from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Goodin urged the court to vacate the permit and order the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to re-start the permitting process.

Attorneys representing KDHE, Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp. and Tri-Star said the permit was proper and the project would meet all environmental standards. As projected, the plant would provide the peak energy needs for nearly a half million people.

Steve Fabert, an assistant attorney general representing KDHE, said the permit should have been approved in 2007, but then-KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby "invoked the specter of global warming problems" in rejecting a permit for two 700-megawatt coal-burning electric plants.

Bremby's decision caused political shockwaves throughout Kansas and the nation.

Bremby had cited the effects of the project’s carbon dioxide emissions on health and climate change.

The Legislature tried to override Bremby’s decision but each time was thwarted by vetoes by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

When Sebelius became secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, her successor Mark Parkinson almost immediately crafted a deal with Sunflower to bless the project.

In November 2010, Bremby was removed after refusing to resign as head of the KDHE to coordinate the cabinet transition from Parkinson’s administration to that of incoming Gov. Sam Brownback. Bremby said he was willing to help with the transition, but didn’t want to leave office to do so.

After Bremby’s departure, replacement John Mitchell approved a permit for a proposed 895-megawatt coal-burning power plant, just before new federal regulations on greenhouse gases went into effect.

Environmentalists have alleged there was improper political pressure put on regulators to approve the permit. But Fabert told the Kansas Supreme Court on Friday, "There is no merit to that issue."

The justices asked numerous questions during the nearly one-hour hearing and took the case under advisement. The court didn't indicate when it would issue a decision.

James Oliver, an attorney representing Tri-State, said the Sierra Club failed to show how the permit had caused any harm, since the plant hasn't been built yet. "A lot of this is total speculation," he said.

But Justice Lee Johnson asked, "Doesn't it seem counter-intuitive that you don't get your day in court until you can prove you can win in court?"

The project also has been in federal court where a judge has delayed it until an environmental impact statement is completed.