KANSAS CITY, KAN.—Roderick Bremby said on Thursday he has an inkling why he was dismissed as Kansas' top environmental official last fall, but he wasn't ready to publicly link it to his rejection of a controversial coal plant permit.
Bremby made his first public appearance yesterday since losing his job as secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) in early November. He said he had been forced out by then-Gov. Mark Parkinson while a second permit application was pending for a controversial coal-fired power plant in western Kansas that had gained national notoriety.
After a 90-minute presentation to about 75 people on issues of sustainability and the coal plant project, Bremby said in an interview that he was shocked and dismayed to lose his job. He said he wasn't told why he was let go.
"I have a sense internally what the issue may have been, but I don't want to suggest anything in particular because I don't want to impugn anyone's character," Bremby told SolveClimate News.
Bremby said he got a call on Nov. 2, Election Day, from Parkinson's legal counsel and chief of staff telling him the governor wanted him to step down as secretary of the state environment agency and instead serve on a transition team to help Governor-elect Sam Brownback.
Bremby responded that he thought he could do both jobs but was told that he was being terminated as secretary. After agreeing not to say anything about his departure until Parkinson left office in January, he was put on leave with pay.
"I didn't quit," Bremby said. He added that he was shocked by the turn of events but was aware he served at the pleasure of the governor. "It was not pleasant, but stuff happens."
Parkinson's office declined at the time to make any connection between Bremby's departure and the coal plant issue.
Bremby said on Thursday he was disturbed by the permit application process, including the "staggering" amount of lobbying dollars that went into supporting the project in Kansas. "That must not happen again," he said.
Bremby's successor at the KDHE, John Mitchell, approved the permit in mid-December for the 895-megawatt coal fired plant proposed by Sunflower Electric Power Corp, near Holcomb, Kansas. Pressure was building to approve the permit before January 2, when the application would have become subject to Environmental Protection Agency rules on carbon dioxide that would kick in.
Bremby made national headlines in 2007 when he became the first public official to deny a coal plant permit out of concern that its carbon dioxide emissions would damage the environment.
Some proponents of the plant suggested that Bremby was slowing the permitting process down so Sunflower could not meet the Jan. 2 deadline. Bremby said he can't say whether he would have approved or denied the permit because he was dismissed before he completed the review process. Bremby said he wasn't surprised the permit won approval after his departure.
However, Sunflower is still not free to break ground on the coal plant. It is the subject of a lawsuit filed by environmental group Sierra Club that seeks to block the Sunflower plant on the grounds that it would put dangerous emissions into the air. Bremby declined to say if he agrees with the lawsuit.
Karl Brooks, the Region 7 administrator of the EPA, wrote a letter last week to new KDHE Secretary Robert Moser questioning whether the emission levels comply with the federal Clean Air Act. The EPA is reviewing the permit process and has asked for a meeting with Moser, an EPA spokesman said.
Bremby spoke to a group that appeared to be mostly environmentalists in a conference room at Kansas City Kansas Community College. He encouraged people in the group to keep expressing their concerns about the plant and any other issues they believe in strongly.
"I'm not sure what the next chapter in my life will be, but if there is anything I can do in the meantime, I will be there," Bremby said.
Bremby advocated further pursuit of natural gas as a clean energy alternative. "In Kansas we are sitting on one of the largest natural gas fields in the world," he said.
Earlier on Thursday, the Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy, a Topeka, Kan.-based nonprofit, released a study carried out by MSB Energy Associates and the Natural Resources Defense Council contending that hundreds of coal plants will burn cleaner than the Sunflower plant, despite assertions by the company that the plant will be among the cleanest in the country.
"Can you prove it? Can you show it?" Bremby said.
Bremby told the gathering it is always important to challenge claims.