Sunflower, a Hays, Kansas-based generation and transmission co-op, has been attempting for more than three years to secure an air permit from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for a major expansion at its 360-megawatt Holcomb coal plant in western Kansas. Initially, Sunflower planned to build a pair of 700-megawatt coal units at the rural site, but KDHE Secretary Roderick Bremby made history in late 2007 when he became the first state environmental official in the U.S. to deny a coal plant permit based on public health concerns over carbon dioxide emissions.

That ruling transformed Bremby into an instant hero in the environmental community and a pariah to coal supporters. In early November, Bremby was fired from his $108,000-a-year job by outgoing Governor Mark Parkinson, a Democrat who succeeded Kathleen Sebelius two years ago when she became President Obama’s Health and Human Services Secretary.

Sebelius, also a Democrat, had presided over two tumultuous legislative sessions in Topeka during which bills authorizing the Sunflower plant easily were approved, only to be vetoed by Sebelius. Efforts to override the vetos fell just short.

Last year, Parkinson, a former lieutenant governor, unveiled a surprising negotiated compromise under which Sunflower would be allowed to construct a single 895-megawatt coal plant.  But the co-op was forced to resubmit a revised permit application to KDHE, whose staff had recommended approval of the original request three years ago.

Sunflower hopes to be issued its long-awaited permit by year’s end, in advance of new Environmental Protection Agency rules related to greenhouse gas emissions scheduled to take effect in early January 2011. A KDHE spokesperson said, both before and after Bremby’s dismissal, the agency was hoping to meet that timetable, although there were no guarantees.

Bremby’s ouster—he was replaced by John Mitchell, a career bureaucrat—was widely seen by opponents of the coal plant as an attempt to influence and expedite a final permit decision.

Parkinson strongly denied such motivation, promising KDHE would perform a “fair and thorough review” of the application and essentially let the chips fall where they may. Parkinson said he told Mitchell, “I don’t care whether you approve the permit or not, but I do care that Kansas follows the laws and regulations governing the process. If following those regulations leads to approving the permit, that is fine. If it results in KDHE denying the permit, that is fine, too. What matters to me is that we follow the  law.”

In late fall, the co-op touted a report conducted by economists from Kansas State University and commissioned by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity that said the coal plant would pump nearly $350 million in annual economic activity, with more than $40 million in state revenue. “The Holcomb expansion project will enable Sunflower to continue to provide low-cost electricity to Kansas families and businesses for decades to come while generating hundreds of millions in tax revenue over the life of the plant,” said Steve Miller, ACCCE president and CEO.

Construction of the plant is expected to generate almost $2 billion in total economic activity and support an estimated 5,900 job-years throughout the state, paying $250 million in labor income. Peak construction employment is forecast to reach 1,900 jobs, and upon completion of the plant in 2016, the project will create 88 permanent jobs with an annual payroll exceeding $6 million.

Sunflower’s two partners in the project are Golden Spread Electric Cooperative, with customers in Texas and Oklahoma, and Colorado-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission.