The expansion project is being partially funded by wholesale power provider Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, of which both rural electric cooperatives San Miguel Power Association and the Delta-Montrose Electric Association are power-purchasing members.
The Sunflower Electric Power Corporation’s coal plant expansion project is proposed for a 10,000-acre site at the existing 362-megawatt Holcomb unit, located four miles south of the town of Holcomb, in southwestern Kansas. It includes the construction of a supercritical pulverized coal unit capable of generating 895 megawatts of electricity.
The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit alleging that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service and certain officials in the Department of Agriculture violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 by failing to produce an EIS in connection with its involvement in the expansion of the project. In the case, Sunflower intervened as a defendant.
In his ruling on Jan. 30, Sullivan declared that the Rural Utilities Service violated NEPA by failing to prepare an EIS prior to providing approvals and financial support for the project. Furthermore, Sullivan ordered that the Rural Utilities Service not issue approvals or consents for agreements that are directly related to the project until an EIS is complete.
The RUS has a substantial stake in the plant because of financial support, including hundreds of millions of dollars of public debt owed by Sunflower Electric to the federal agency. A review in the form of an EIS would include an assessment of how burning coal compares to alternative energy sources, such as wind, in terms of human health and environmental impacts.
Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertel said in a phone interview on Tuesday that a permit for the expansion was issued in 2010 and it has 18 months to commence construction. If construction on the plant started sometime in 2012, the projected finish date on the project would be sometime in 2016 or 2017. That is, she said, if there are no hang-ups in its approval process.
“Right now we are determining what the implications of this decision are on the project,” Hertel said. “We are still reviewing it and I can’t speak to specifics right now.”
Although the proposed expansion project would be built and operated by Sunflower, Tri-State would take about 75 percent of the plant’s output and would be responsible for about $2.4 billion of the plant’s estimated $3 billion price tag. As of the end of 2010, Tri-State had already spent $57.4 million on developing the 895-megawatt plant, according to the cooperative’s 2010 Annual Report.
While Tri-State spokesman Jim Van Someren wouldn’t comment on Sullivan’s ruling, he did say that Tri-State continues to keep Holcomb open as a viable resource option, but the Tri-State Board of Directors have not made any final decisions or commitments to date, so much of what was reported in the Annual Report is speculative.
For those who are critical of the future of coal-fired plants, Sullivan’s ruling is seen as the first step in proving the plant isn’t viable.
“The environmental laws and regulations in place in this country are simply there to protect our clean air and clean water,” Sheep Mountain Alliance Director Hilary White said. “There are unfortunately too many examples of the conventional energy industry violating the rules and polluting our two most important natural resources. It is always encouraging to see the justice system working correctly to ensure that the safeguards established to protect us are followed.”
“If this plant ever gets to the point of being scrutinized, we’ll see clearly that alternatives to coal such as wind are more affordable, don't have any risk of pollution harming people’s health, and that they are better economically,” said Dan Morse, executive director of High Country Citizens’ Alliance, an environmental group based in Crested Butte, Colo. “Tri-State has already wasted millions of dollars of customers’ money. It’s time to move on to cleaner energy sources that are doable and that will actually benefit members.”
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