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Sunflower will 'respect' court's decision

10/6/2013

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Friday's Kansas Supreme Court decision invalidating Sunflower Electric's permit to build a coal-fired power plant near Holcomb delighted environmental groups.

Hays-based Sunflower Electric, however, wasn't quite as thrilled, but said it would return its focus back to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which is responsible for issuing the permit.

"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," Sunflower officials said in a statement. "Sunflower will continue to take the steps necessary to preserve and advance the project, which is one of many resources under consideration to meet the long-term power needs of our member co-ops."

Gov. Sam Brownback, who has been an active supporter of the plant, criticized the court's decision.

"President (Barack) Obama's war on American energy is increasing the monthly electricity bill for every citizen and business in Kansas and unnecessarily slowing the economic recovery of the United States of America," Brownback said in a statement to The Hays Daily News. "With the decision today, the Kansas Supreme Court has joined President Obama's war and struck a significant blow to the struggling rural communities of southwest Kansas."

The Kansas Sierra Club thought otherwise.

"That's great news for us," the group's air quality committee chairman Craig Volland said when told of the court's unanimous decision. With the help of an attorney from EarthJustice, the Sierra Club challenged KDHE's decision to issue a permit necessary for Sunflower to build the plant.

Volland especially was thrilled because not only will Sunflower have to abide by stricter pollution rules when regulators again review the permit, but the court's decision also will strip away a provision that could have exempted the proposed coal-fired power plant from more stringent rules announced about two weeks ago.

In that instance, the Environmental Protection Agency said it would take comment on three proposed power plants -- including Sunflower's Holcomb plant -- to determine if it was far enough along in the construction process to be grandfathered in under the old greenhouse gas rules.

Stripping the permit issued by KDHE, Volland said, will mean Sunflower must abide by even tighter pollution rules.

The court's ruling affects Sunflower's construction of a second coal-fired power plant at its Holcomb facility in addition to the plant already operating there.

It's been a long-running battle by Sunflower and its partner, Colorado-based Tri-Sate Generation and Transmission Association, to build a coal-fired plant.

Most of the electricity from the 895-megawatt plant would go to Tri-State, with Sunflower retaining some of the power. Sunflower would operate the plant.

In a statement, Earthjustice hailed the court's decision, and said the permit must now be reconsidered and "all current air pollution regulations must be applied."

Those new rules, the group said, means the "likelihood of the expansion plant legally meeting those standards or finding financial backing for unneeded coal-fired generation are dim."

"The proposed Holcomb coal plant is now a fading mirage on the plains," said Holly Bender, deputy director of the Sierra Club's 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."

In its 76-page ruling, the court said KDHE "erroneously interpreted and applied" the federal Clean Air Act and the Kansas Air Quality Act.

It made that finding after laboriously deciding if the Sierra Club even had standing to challenge the case in court.