Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of stories featuring The Telegram’s top 10 news stories for 2014.
Sunflower electric cleared a major hurdle in May in its long-running effort to build a coal plant in Holcomb. But despite gaining the air quality permit it had needed to build the 850 megawatt coal-fired plant, the project is still mired in a legal battle with the Sierra Club, keeping things in a holding pattern.
On May 30, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) issued an air quality permit addendum for the company’s proposed Holcomb (H2) coal plant, giving it a green light to begin construction.
The addendum addressed federal regulations that the Kansas Supreme Court asked KDHE to address in an air quality permit granted by KDHE to Sunflower in December 2010, which the Sierra Club later challenged, and is the Telegram’s No. 8 story of 2014.
After reviewing the case, the Kansas Supreme Court asked KDHE to address federal regulations establishing one-hour NO2 and SO2 National Ambient Air Quality Standards and to apply new emission limits to the proposed plant’s steam generator. The HAP rules cover new coal- and oil-fired electric utility steam-generating units greater than 25 megawatts constructed after May 2011.
As a result, KDHE included language in an addendum that requires the plant owners to comply with all applicable air quality provisions upon startup of Holcomb (H2). The addendum also addressed the nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide one-hour rules for National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
KDHE indicated modeling was conducted as part of the review process for the December 2010 permit, and the results showed the proposed project “would not cause or contribute” to exceeding emissions standards.
At the time of the addendum’s issuance on May 30, Dr. Robert Moser, Secretary of KDHE, said the KDHE permit complied with all current state and federal laws.
But on June 26, the Sierra Club filed an appeal with the Kansas Appellate Court challenging the legality of the May 30 permit.
According to a July 27 press release issued by the Sierra Club, their appeal details KDHE’s failure to address the deficiencies in the permit identified by the Kansas Supreme Court and argues that the permit still violates the Clean Air Act and Kansas law. Specifically, the release says, KDHE did not comply with the Court’s instructions by failing to include adequate limitations for hazardous air pollutants such as mercury and acid gases, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide in the final permit.
These pollutants are known to cause serious harm to human health and the environment, Sierra Club pointed out. Mercury that exceeds safety limitations is especially toxic to infants and pregnant women, and nitrogen and sulfur dioxide pollution in excess amounts can cause severe respiratory distress and even death, especially for elderly or otherwise vulnerable individuals.
The appeal argues that the approved permit still does not comply with the Clean Air Act. It cites failure to include adequate emissions limitations for hazardous air pollutants, emission limits for greenhouse gases and current best available control technology (BACT) limits as examples.
Sierra Club is represented by Earthjustice. Amanda Goodin is lead counsel on the case.
“KDHE continues to find loopholes that give this plant a blank check to pollute. The Kansas Supreme Court gave clear, legal instructions to ensure that this plant meets the most basic protections for clean air. KDHE ignored them,” Goodin said, in the press release.
Since the appeal, the project has remained in its holding pattern.
“The project is currently working its way through the courts,” said Clare Gustin, vice president of member services and external affairs at Sunflower, in an interview Monday.
According to Sunflower Electric, the $2.2 billion plant is estimated to create 1,900 construction jobs at peak build-out, which translates to approximately $250 million in labor income over the duration of construction and $400 million in total income. After the Holcomb station is built, there will be an estimated 88 permanent jobs, a total of 261 new jobs throughout Kansas that, combined, will generate approximately $17 million in annual labor income and $200 million in total income annually.
The economic boost the project would bring to the area garnered strong support from both state and local officials.
When the addendum was issued May 30, Gov. Sam Brownback said KDHE had done its due diligence to ensure the plant would deliver clean power to Kansans within current emission limits.
“The issuance of this permit addendum also ensures new job creation in Holcomb and Southwest Kansas,” Brownback said, at the time.
Lona DuVall, president of the Finney County Economic Development Corp., was also encouraged by the issuance of the addendum.
“Sunflower has fought a long, hard battle here and continued to keep up the good fight, when I’m sure it would have been easier to walk away from it. They know that we’re going to have an increased need for power generation as we continue to grow our economy and grow our area, so the fact that they stayed with it is very important for all of us,” DuVall said, at the time.
At a June 30 Lions Club meeting at the Clarion Inn, Gustin told those on hand that, because of the appeal, the project would once again be in a holding pattern until the appeal makes its way through the courts.
In a separate interview at that time, Gustin said the project itself is not only important to the region, but that it’s solid technology.
“We still believe it’s an important project to move forward. It’s disappointing that our detractors continue to impede progress,” Gustin said, at the time.