Environmentalists' hopes that a coal-fired power plant in southwestern Kansas would never get built suffered a possible setback this week with the controversial departure of a state official who gained national attention three years ago when he denied the plant's permit based on its possible effect on climate change.
Rod Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), was replaced after declining Gov. Mark Parkinson's request he leave to direct the transition team that will see Governor-elect Sam Brownback into office in two months.
Opponents of the proposed plant near Holcomb, Kan., believe he was forced out so that a permit for the plant would stand a better chance of being approved by the KDHE before new federal air quality standards take effect Jan. 2.
“There isn't anyone in the state who doesn't know what this was about,” said Scott Allegrucci, executive director of the Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy, based in Topeka, Kan.
Bremby won the praise of environmental groups nationwide in 2007 when he denied a previous application for a coal-fired energy because it would create greenhouse gases linked to global warming.
Since then, Parkinson negotiated an agreement with Sunflower to build one plant rather than two. The proposed facility is 895-megawatt coal-fired plant that would power an estimated 448,000 homes, though mostly through a Sunflower partner in Colorado.
“Bremby exercised his legal statutory authority to deny previous permits for a huge and unnecessary coal plant project,” Allegrucci said. “For his extraordinary personal and professional integrity on behalf of all current and future Kansans, Sec. Bremby has been summarily fired.”
Parkinson spokeswoman Rachel Reeves declined to make any connection between Bremby's departure and his views on the plant's permit. She stood by earlier comments made by a Parkinson press aide that Bremby served at the pleasure of the governor, was offered the transition job, and declined.
Parkinson appointed John Mitchell, a 30-year KDHE veteran, as acting director. Mitchell had been director of the environmental division for two years. Mitchell announced Bremby's departure in a memo to staff on Nov. 2.
"Highly Suspicious" Departure
Sierra Club regional representative Stephanie Cole called Bremby's departure “highly suspicious” given reported pressure on him to accelerate the permit process.
“We are not aware of a similar situation where a coal plant permitting process has been so politicized, and where the chief environmental officer appears to have been forced out of his position in the midst of a highly controversial permitting process,” Cole said.
Sunflower, which had no comment on Bremby's departure, is hoping to get the permit approved before Jan.. 2, when new Enviromental Protection Agency standards take effect. The GHG Tailoring Rule will require builders of new plants to prove they are using the latest technologies to minimize greenhouse gas emissions.