Enough Is Enough: Sunflower’s Permit Should Be Revoked

By now it should be clear to anyone who has followed the five-year saga of Sunflower Electric’s efforts to build a second coal-fired utility plant in Holcomb, Kansas, that the public has been misled and misinformed by supporters of this project.

From the outset, Sunflower campaigned for this coal plant—originally three coal plants—on the grounds that Kansas needed the energy and it would bring new jobs.  In reality, most, if not all, of the energy would be sold to companies outside of Kansas, leaving the pollution here while the electricity went elsewhere.  The promise of new jobs amounted to relatively few permanent jobs that could easily be provided by building renewable energy facilities.

Proponents of Holcomb II usually neglect to mention that Sunflower’s primary financial backer, Colorado-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, has investments in coal mines that produce some 20 million tons per year.  Additionally, Tri-State is a member of the Western Fuels Association (WFA), which operates a fleet of 1,600 rail cars, delivering coal throughout the Midwest, including to Sunflower’s existing plant in Holcomb.  Coincidentally, Sunflower’s outgoing CEO, Earl Watkins, is also on WFA’s Board of Directors.

What incentive could anyone have to disrupt the chain of profit—or to slow its growth?  Better yet, Tri-State gets a downwind state to host the new coal plant, even as the co-op touts its investments in wind energy in Colorado.

As a friend of mine succinctly put it, “Kansas will be Colorado’s coal bitch.”

Recent revelations of collusion between Sunflower and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment make it clear that the public has unknowingly been playing with loaded dice.  At every stage of this long debate information has been slanted and even corrupted by supporters of this plant.

KDHE is supposed to be a watchdog for Kansans, protecting health and environment.  But when former Gov. Mark Parkinson didn’t get the support he wanted for this project from KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby, he fired him.

In February, at Bremby’s first public appearance following his dismissal, he said the review of Sunflower’s permit application “was not a benign, routine, pristine, pure process.  Unfortunately, there were abuses.”

“Look at the lobbying dollars in this process,” he added.  “It’s staggering.”

A recent investigation by Kansas City Star reporter Karen Dillon revealed that emails between Sunflower employees and KDHE officials demonstrate a pattern of collusion in marketing this unnecessary and dangerous project to an unwitting public.  Such collusion did not begin recently.

Parkinson’s 2009 backroom deal with Sunflower undermined years of efforts to stop this plant by those of us concerned with the environmental damage and health risks it posed.  He sidestepped the legislature just as it was on the brink of supporting then-Gov. Sebelius’s veto of a bill that would have permitted two plants.  His meeting with Sunflower executives was not public, nor was it disclosed until after the deal was done, and emails demonstrate that even KDHE’s own staff questioned the “green provisions” of the agreement.

The damage and growing danger to our environment from noxious gasses emitted by coal plants have been well documented and accepted by an overwhelming majority of the scientific community.  As NASA scientist James Hansen has pointed out, “Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.”

The battle to deny this reality has nothing to do with science or any other diversionary issues that often find their way into the argument.  It’s about money.  The fossil fuel industry has a large stake in keeping America dependent on coal and oil.  Exxon, Peabody, Koch Industries, and other energy companies continue bankrolling “think tanks” and junk science to make the case for more digging and drilling and burning.

Given the collusion between Sunflower and KDHE in fast-tracking this permit, the Environmental Protection Agency should deny Sunflower’s request to build a new coal plant.  Additionally, the Kansas Attorney General’s office should begin an investigation into corruption in the permitting process for this plant.  To do less would risk leaving Kansas with the hazardous legacy of this tainted process.

Bob Sommer is Chair of the Sierra Club’s Kanza Group and serves as Political Chair of the Kansas Chapter.

A version of this essay appeared previously at the Kansas City Star Midwest Voices Blog.

By Bob Sommer

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