Environmental and economic concerns clashed on Monday afternoon at a public hearing hosted by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE).
The hearing allowed citizens to document their concerns surrounding a draft environmental permit for the Sunflower Electric Corporation’s plans to build a 895-mega watt coal-fired plant in Holcomb, Kan.
Initial plans for an expansion of Sunflower’s existing plant were struck down by at the end of former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ veto pen. After she was appointed to a federal position in the Obama administration, current Gov. Mark Parkinson and the electric company penned a compromise that would allow Sunflower to build one 895 mega want plant instead of two, 700 mega-watt plants as originally proposed.
KDHE officials estimated that more than 400 people were in attendance at a 2 p.m. public hearing at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park. The hearing continued after a dinner break that evening.
Participants from as far away as Washington, D.C. and Houston seemed fairly evenly divided over whether the electric company should be allowed to expand in Finney County, Kan.
Bruce Nillis of Washington, D.C. told the near-capacity school auditorium and representatives from KDHE that coal plants are a national issue.
Kansas sparked a nationwide debate about coal power when the state denied Sunflower’s initial environmental permit request three years ago, he said.
“After you rejected the permit for the first plant, other states followed your lead,” he said. “Since 2008, not a single new coal plant has broken ground in the U.S. Did the lights go out? Of course not.”
State Sen. Karin Brownlee, who represents Gardner, Edgerton and Spring Hill in the state senate, said the plant will generate more than electricity. It will create jobs.
Sunflower Corporation estimates suggest the plant will generate more than 1,900 construction jobs as the project is completed and 85 permanent jobs.
Businesses consider whether the state has enough power to serve their companies when selecting locations, Brownlee said.
“Without this additional power supply, our efforts (to create jobs) would be limited,” Brownlee said. “…The key point is we need to grow the economy.”
In the afternoon session, Brownlee wasn’t the only elected official to testify. Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, and Rep. Arlen Siegfried, R-Olathe, also offered their support to the project.
Lt. Governor candidate and state Sen. Jeff Colyer offered his support for the project after the dinner break.
“As our country faces the challenges of an aging energy infrastructure, it is absolutely critical we adopt common sense energy solutions that provide consumers with affordable and reliable base load energy,” Colyer told the panel. “In implementing these solutions, though, it is critical we do so in a manner that provides protections for both our environment and Kansas’ workforce. I am confident the Sunflower Electric Holcomb state expansion project meets all essential requirements.”
Overland Park resident Joe Spease requested that the permit be denied. He said the health care costs associated with additional pollution should be accounted for in the permit request.
“I’m very concerned that the Holcomb plant would create far too much pollution,” he said.
The compromise between the state and Sunflower requires that the project generate 20 percent of its energy through sustainable sources by 2015. Earl Watkins, president of Sunflower Electric Corporation, said the company already uses a variety of energy sources, and there is debate about which source is best.
“Some would say natural gas. Some say coal. Others would say nuclear. Others would say wind,” Watkins said. “We have all of those things. We want to have a balanced portfolio.”
Thad Holcomb, a representative of Ecumenical Christian Ministries at the University of Kansas, offered testimony as a representative of the church.
“A ‘no’ to construction of the Holcomb plant is a ‘yes’ to those yet to be born,” he told the panel of three KDHE staff.
Two more public hearings on the environmental permit are scheduled. One in Salina on Aug. 4 and another in Garden City on Aug. 5.
KDHE will also accept written comments through Aug. 15.