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.
The Sierra Club, Earthjustice and other environmental groups asked the EPA in September to take a more active role in the permit review process “out of fairness and transparency.” The groups said too much political pressure at the state level jeopardized full and fair review of the permit application.
In his written response, EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks declined to take a stronger role for the EPA but said the environmentalists should “rest assured” the agency will carefully review whether the KDHE followed public hearing and review rules. Nothing about his positions have changed in the wake of Bremby’s departure, a spokesman said Wednesday.
Bremby Blazed Path
Three years ago Bremby denied Sunflower’s bid to build a 1,400 megawatt facility with two coal-fired power plants. His decision is believed to mark the first time a government agency has halted a coal-burning plant based on its possible impact on climate change.
But last year, amid some intense state legislative support for the plant, Gov. Parkinson negotiated a deal with Sunflower for the smaller, single plant. Parkinson served as lieutenant governor under Kathleen Sebelius, who resigned in 2009 to join President Barack Obama’s cabinet as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. As governor, Sebelius vetoed plans for the coal plant four times.
Sunflower submitted its most recently updated permit application on July 1, followed by a 45-day comment period. But due to flaws in Sunflower’s air dispersion modeling software, the application process started over, and there was an additional 30-day comment period.
Environmental groups unsuccessfully pushed to get the second comment period extended to 45 days, aruging to the EPA the permit review was being rushed under political pressure.
The 30-day comment period on the permit ended with a public hearing Oct. 25, sponsored by the KDHE at a Topeka hotel.
No New Arguments Aired at Public Hearing
About 200 people attended the contentious hearing at which critics said the plant was little more than a placeholder for electric power that would eventually be sent out of state, leaving Kansas to absorb the environmental impacts while reaping little benefit.
Plant supporters, however, said its technology would minimize carbon dioxide output linked to global warming and would generate many new jobs.
In all, 57 people spoke at the hearing. The department has received more than 5,600 public comments about the plant, which would be nearly three times larger than the existing 27-year-old facility now at the same site.
Environmentalists have cited potential emission of greenhouse gases and heavy metals such as mercury, which can contaminate waterways. Sunflower and some supporters of the plant, however, said the environmental impact is being exaggerated.
“It will be one of the cleanest coal plants in the nation,” Sunflower spokesperson Cindy Hertel told SolveClimateNews.
The plant as designed would meet the new EPA standards, but Sunflower could face a long delay having to demonstrate that, Hertel said. “In essence, this would delay the project without creating any change in technology,” she said.
There is no existing commercial technology to control CO2 emissions, but the new plant would have an energy-efficient thermal design to minimize such emissions, testified Sunflower’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, Kyle Nelson.
Meanwhile, opponents of the plant chafed over the fact that nearly 80 percent of the power generated would be used in Colorado, not in Kansas. The proposed major buyer would be Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the operator of 44 electric cooperatives serving customers in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming.
“Our major objection is that this is a coal plant for Colorado,” the Sierra Club’s Cole said at the hearing. She also contended that Tri-State doesn’t need to buy more power: “If there’s no need for the power, what’s the rush?”
KDHE has not given a timeframe for a final decision on the plant. In an email, acting director Mitchell told SolveClimate News, “KDHE is committed to a fair and objective permitting process.”