Danedri Thompson
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Area residents will have their say on a coal plant project in western Kansas in August. After a more than two year legislative showdown, Sunflower Electric Power Corp. officials are seeking a final air quality OK for a coal plant expansion in Finney County.

An artist's rendering of the Sunflower power plant expansion proposed to be built in Holcomb, Kan. Rendering courtesy of Sunflower Electric Power Corporation

Officials have a draft air quality permit in hand from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, but a formal permit from the department has proven elusive for the electric utility in the past.

Original plans for the project included two 700-mega watt plants in Holcomb, Kan., but KDHE denied an air quality permit request citing environmental concerns. Members of the Kansas Legislature attempted to override the permit denial, but the legislative attempt died with a stroke of then Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ veto pen.

“Our mission is reliable energy at the most effective cost,” Earl Watkins, president of the Sunflower Electric Power Corporation, said. “A coal plant makes the most sense.”

Gov. Sebelius’ departure for a federal job greased the wheels on a compromise on the proposed coal plant expansion project. Gov. Mark Parkinson approved a compromise that will allow a single coal fire plant to be built in western Kansas provided the plant expansion meets certain environmental guidelines.

Before construction starts, KDHE must grant the corporation an air quality permit. That process requires input from members of the public.
Watkins said public hearings around the state are to make sure every air quality concern related to the new plant is considered.

“The point of the public hearing is for you – the public – to say well, you have to look at this issue,” he said. “If the public raises an issue, it would have to be addressed.”

A first public hearing on the proposed project will start at 2 p.m. on Aug. 2 at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park. It’s one of three that will occur across the state.

Watkins said the newly constructed plant will be among the cleanest coal plants in the state.

“If Kansans are truly concerned about getting their fair share of renewable energy, they’re going to get it here,” Watkins said.

In addition to coal, Watkin’s utility also derives some of its electricity through wind and natural gas.

However, Watkins expects to hear opposition to the coal plant project during the public comment period.

Stephanie Cole, associated regional representative of the Sierra Club, said she expects between 60 and 70 members of the Kansas Sierra Club to comment in Johnson County.

“From our prospective, if it’s approved and Sunflower builds the plant, we’ll have a coal plant that will emit close to 7 million tons of carbon emissions per year,” she said.

Legislators from Johnson County were instrumental in defeating an attempt to override Sebelius’ veto of the project in 2008, and Cole said she anticipates broad opposition to the project in Johnson County this time around as well.

“It came down to a handful of legislators in Johnson County,” Cole said. “Everybody had their eyes on the Johnson County moderates, and Johnson County will pay an important role again.”

Although Gov. Parkinson’s compromise with the electric utility corporation includes carbon offsets for emissions, Cole said it doesn’t go far enough.

“The so called offsets aren’t going to come close to reducing the massive emissions that will come from that coal plant every year,” Cole said.

Cole said there’s also evidence that ill effects of the plant won’t be solely environmental, but may hit electric rate payers in the pocketbook as well.

She explained that plans for close to 100 coal plants nationwide have been shelved in the last few years due to environmental regulations and the cost of coal.

“It’s risky right now,” she said. “Other utilities and providers are saying it’s very hard to justify the risk of coal plant development right now.”

But Watkins said Sunflower is an electric cooperative owned not by any one corporation, but by the consumers themselves. The new plant will serve customer owners in western Kansas and will have enough capacity to sell electricity to utilities in neighboring states.

“If we get money from Colorado, that’s money we didn’t have to get from you,” Watkins said. “We’re only looking for enough revenue to recoup our costs.”

Additionally, Watkins said the new plant, projected to take more than two years to build, will create 1,900 construction jobs.

“The Sierra Club said those are only temporary jobs, but if you’re a boilermaker, your life is made up of temporary jobs,” Watkins said.

The plant expansion will also create an estimated 70 full time positions.

However, the plant is set to receive a 100 percent tax abatement for 12 years, and Cole said the organization is still in debt on its original plant.

“That’s a real concern for taxpayers,” Cole said.
The public comment period opened on July 1 and runs through Aug. 15.

Officials will take comments in person starting at 2 p.m. on Aug. 2 at Blue Valley Northwest High School. They’ll take a break at 5 p.m. and reconvene at 6: 30 p.m. They’ll also take comments in person in Salina, Kan. on Aug. 4 and in Garden City, Kan. on Aug. 5. Comments can be submitted electronically online at www.kdheks.gov or sent to Melissa Weide, Bureau of Air; 1000 SW Jackson, Suite 310; Topeka, KS 66612.