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Environmental group files lawsuit to challenge Kansas' latest decision to allow new coal plant

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TOPEKA, Kansas — The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit Friday challenging Kansas' latest move to allow construction of a $2.8 billion coal-fired power plant, partly because the state wouldn't regulate the plant's greenhouse gas emissions.

The environmental group also said in its filing with the state Court of Appeals that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment isn't imposing adequate limits on other pollutants, including mercury, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. KDHE spokeswoman Sara Belfry said the agency believes the new plant would meet all federal and state air-quality standards.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp. wants to build the 895-megawatt facility next to an existing coal-fired plant outside Holcomb in southwest Kansas. The company declined to comment on the Sierra Club's filing because it was still reviewing the lawsuit.

KDHE Secretary Robert Moser approved changes last month in a 2010 permit allowing the plant's construction. The department said the changes set stricter air-quality standards to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court ruling last year in an earlier Sierra Club lawsuit, but environmentalists contend the changes are superficial.

Amanda Goodin, an attorney for Earthjustice, which is representing the Sierra Club, said even with the changes approved by Moser, his department "basically spit out the exact same permit" as in 2010.

"They've just done this very shoddy, slap-dash job," Goodin said in an Associated Press interview before the lawsuit was filed.

The new lawsuit also said the plant wouldn't meet federal air-quality standards that the state is required to enforce, not only for greenhouse gases but for other pollutants.

Moser approved the permit changes only three days before the federal Environmental Protection Agency outlined a new rule setting targets for states for cutting emissions of heat-trapping gases, such as carbon dioxide, tied to global warming.

The goal for Kansas is cutting such emissions by 23 percent from 2012 levels by 2030. The lawsuit said the new coal-fired plant would emit more than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year — and the Sierra Club said Friday that the actual level will be millions of tons — making it far more difficult for Kansas to cut overall carbon emissions.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2007 file photo is Sunflower Electric Cooperative's coal-fired power plant in Holcomb, Kan. The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit Friday, June 27, 2014  challenging Kansas' latest move to allow construction of a $2.8 billion coal-fired power plant, partly because the state wouldn't regulate the plant's greenhouse gas emissions. Sunflower wants to build the 895-megawatt facility next to the existing plant outside Holcomb. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2007 file photo is Sunflower Electric Cooperative's coal-fired power plant in Holcomb, Kan. The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit Friday, June 27, 2014 challenging Kansas' latest move to allow construction of a $2.8 billion coal-fired power plant, partly because the state wouldn't regulate the plant's greenhouse gas emissions. Sunflower wants to build the 895-megawatt facility next to the existing plant outside Holcomb. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

But apart from the new rule, the lawsuit also argues that Kansas still must require Sunflower to have the best available technology for controlling greenhouse gas emissions and the permit revisions fail to do that. Sunflower and backers of its project contend the plant's technology will be state-of-the-art, but environmentalists argue that the equipment the company has discussed publicly already is outdated.

Holly Bender, deputy director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, said failing to deal with carbon emissions at all is "just ludicrous."

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has praised KDHE for its "due diligence" in revising the permit and contends the new plant will deliver clean electricity.

"We believe that this is in compliance with state and federal law," Belfry said, declining to comment further because the lawsuit is pending.

Environmentalists contend that a mix of conservation programs and renewable energy can meet the state's future energy needs. They note that wind energy is a burgeoning industry on the often-gusty Great Plains.

But the company has said a coal-fired plant still represents the most cost-effective and reliable way to generate additional electricity.

Sunflower, a nonprofit based in Hays, supplies wholesale power for about 400,000 homes in southwest Kansas through six electric cooperatives. The new plant would generate enough electricity to supply 537,000 homes, according to one state estimate, but Sunflower would reserve 78 percent of that for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., a wholesaler supplying 44 cooperatives in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming.

Sunflower has sought to add coal-fired generating capacity since 2001, but only a deal between the company and then-Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson in 2009 cleared the way for a state air-quality permit. As part of the deal, the GOP-controlled Legislature approved renewable energy standards for utilities that it had resisted.


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