Kansas Supreme Court Reverses Holcomb Coal Plant Air Permit

HOlcomb power plant
The existing coal-fired power plant at Holcomb, Kansas, operated by Sunflower Electric Power (Photo courtesy Sunflower Electric Power Corp.)


TOPEKA, Kansas, October 7, 2013 (ENS) – The Kansas Supreme Court Friday invalidated the 2010 air pollution permit granted to Sunflower Electric Power Corp. by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Sunflower received the permit for construction of an 895-megawatt coal-fired power plant, known as Holcomb 2, at the site of Sunflower’s existing plant in Holcomb, Kansas, known as Holcomb 1. Citing Clean Air Act concerns, the court ruled that the permit, known as an air emission source construction permit, must be reconsidered by KDHE, and all current air pollution regulations must be applied. Click here for a copy of  the court’s ruling.

“This is a good day for everyone in Kansas who breathes. The Kansas Supreme Court saw through Sunflower’s smoke screen and clearly agreed that Kansans deserve clean air. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has the responsibility to meet that goal for the state,” said Amanda Goodin, Earthjustice lawyer representing the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, which appealed the permit granted by the state.

With new federal air quality standards in effect since the project was proposed, the likelihood of the expansion plant legally meeting the updated standards or finding financial backing for coal-fired generation are slim, say Earthjustice attorneys and Sierra Club representatives.

HOlcomb power plant
The existing coal-fired power plant at Holcomb, Kansas, operated by Sunflower Electric Power (Photo courtesy Sunflower Electric Power Corp.)

Holcomb 2, was the most intensely contested coal plant in Kansas history, and the permit is one of the most controversial ever considered by KDHE. It is supported by the current Kansas governor, Sam Brownback, a Republican, but was the subject of a running battle between state legislators and the previous governor, Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat who now heads the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

If built, Holcomb II would release air pollutants in Kansas, while the power it generates would belong to Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a Colorado-based utility.

The proposed plant would emit mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, and particulate matter.

The court ruled that KDHE erred by failing to require the air pollution permit to comply with the most recent federal one-hour standards for nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides. These standards require strict emission limits to protect members of the public from respiratory illness.

The court ruling reverses the permit and sends it back to KDHE to issue a new permit that complies with the law. The court held that in writing a new permit KDHE will have to incorporate strict new standards for mercury and acid gases.

The court also affirmed that citizens have the right to sue over the permit’s failure to protect clean air and public health.

“The proposed Holcomb coal plant is now a fading mirage on the plains,” said Holly Bender, deputy director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign. “As states embrace renewable energy and utilities are locking in contracts for clean energy at record low prices, there just isn’t a need for the dirty, expensive energy that Sunflower Electric is looking to sell.”

According to Tri-State’s recent resource plan on file with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, it has no need for electricity from Holcomb II until 2027 at the earliest.

KDHE spokeswoman Miranda Steele said it is too early to draw conclusions about the fate of the plant.

“KDHE is reviewing the Kansas Supreme Court decision to determine what impact it has on the air construction permit going forward,” Steele said in an email to the “Topeka Capital-Journal.”

Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertel released a statement Friday afternoon saying the company has no intention of abandoning the project.

“Sunflower will respect the decision of the court in this very complex case involving state and federal laws and regulations and will continue to work with KDHE to implement the instructions of the court as the permit process moves forward,” Hertel stated.

In August 2005, Sunflower and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association announced an agreement for the construction of two new coal-fired power plants at Holcomb. On May 4, 2009, a compromise was struck between Sunflower and the State of Kansas to allow one 895-MW coal plant to be constructed.

Sunflower Electric, which would manage and operate the plant, still owes the federal government hundreds of millions of dollars for taxpayer-supported loans taken out to build the existing coal plant at Holcomb Station.

Earthjustice lawyer Todd True, who also represents the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, said the financial situation of Sunflower Electric Power will not support a new power plant. “Given Sunflower’s massive debt and precarious financial situation, it can’t possibly finance this new coal plant itself without putting ratepayers and American taxpayers at further risk.”

“This ruling calms the fears of many Coloradans who are concerned about Tri-State’s coal investments and the direct impact the investments will have on Colorado ratepayers,” said Nellis Kennedy-Howard, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign Representative in Colorado. “Tri-State’s commitment to expanding its coal resources is at odds with the cost-effective clean energy solutions that currently exist in Colorado and beyond.”

In a separate lawsuit, a federal court in Washington, DC held that the U.S. government violated the law by allowing Sunflower to proceed with this financially risky plant without first examining its environmental effects and alternative actions.

Kansas currently is developing cleaner wind energy, with more than 2,600 megawatts of wind power currently online in the state, powering more than 10 percent of Kansans’ energy demands.

“Kansas can lead the way nationally on clean energy,” said Craig Volland, air quality chair of the Sierra Club’s Kansas Chapter. “Wind turbines don’t require Kansas water. Solar panels don’t require burning millions of tons of coal purchased from Wyoming and the dangerous air pollution that goes with that. It’s time for Kansas electric utilities to invest in Kansas’ future and commit to clean energy jobs and investment, rather than investing in a dirty, expensive relic of the past like coal.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.

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