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Roger City’s Coal Ash Dump Hearing

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More than 100 people showed up at the Rogers City High School gymnasium for a state hearing on burying toxic coal ash near Lake Huron.

Last month’s state hearing for a coal ash landfill that would house millions of tons of toxic coal ash near Lake Huron attracted more than 100 people to the Rogers City High School gymnasium.

The Jan. 27 hearing, held by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment., considered Cadillac-based Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative request  to build the landfill in the same huge Presque Isle County limestone quarry, here it also wants to construct a 600 MW coal- and petroleum coke-fired power plant.

At the hearing, a majority of the speakers, some of them local elected officials, some hired as Wolverine consultants, and the rest local residents, urged the panel to approve the landfill, stating that they trusted MDNRE’s expertise and that the community badly needs the jobs the landfill and the plant would provide.

A smaller number of speakers, some working for environmental groups and the rest area residents, urged the panel to either deny or delay action on the permit request, or at least require Wolverine to bury its waste far from leaky “karst” limestone and Lake Huron, in a more well-defended landfill facility.

Topping opponents’ concern was the fact that nothing, including landfills, lasts forever, but that Lake Huron would certainly outlast the landfill, particularly if it encounters unforeseen circumstances.

Local resident Bob Brietzke told state regulators the coal plant is already guaranteed to pump mercury into the air and the lake around Rogers City through its smoke stack. On top of that, he has “a concern about worst-case scenarios” that could threaten the landfill and its proposed double-liner system, jeopardizing the community’s water supply and Lake Huron.

Mr. Brietzke asked, could the landfill handle a freak natural event—say, 11inches of rain in an hour, or an earthquake?

For Mr. Brietzke, assurances from state regulators that a landfill liner has not failed in Michigan in the last 15 years aren’t enough, given the landfill’s close proximity to the lake. Mr. Brietzke compared the assurances that the landfill would never fail to claims made some 80 years ago that the famous Rogers City ore freighter, the Carl D. Bradley, was virtually unsinkable.

“It was the Queen of the Lakes, the biggest freighter, the nicest freighter, top notch technology,” Mr. Brietzke said. “Twenty nine years later it sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan as time and age caused it to become brittle. In 15 years, the landfill double-liner has never failed. Well, the Carl D. Bradley, after 15 years, wasn’t failing either, and at 29 years it failed.”

Others expressed concerns about the wisdom of putting the landfill in the quarry in a region known for its karst geology-a blend of highly porous limestone, sinkholes, and underground caves, streams, and aquifers.

Wolverine representative Ken Bradstreet assured the audience that the landfill would, indeed, be safe. He said putting two liners underneath the landfill was redundant, and that Wolverine plans to recycle a significant portion of the coal ash in “soil stabilization, road base, and construction products.” He said the landfill would be well above the quarry water line in case the quarry flooded, and that coal combustion waste is currently not listed as a hazardous material under Michigan law.

Mr. Bradstreet went on to say that Wolverine has done 27 borings for geological mapping, and that state geologist Ty Black agreed with Wolverine’s claims that the site is not vulnerable to any “active” karst geology.

But Lee Sprague, an organizer for the Sierra Club, told the MDNRE that the federal government is currently examining imposing stringent requirements on coal ash storage, so it would make no sense to approve a landfill for coal ash until new regulations are finalized.

Jim Dulzo, managing editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute, spoke on behalf of his family, which has owned property in Presque Isle County since 1947. He said Wolverine’s plans for disposal of the coal ash are simply inadequate.

“This ash must be disposed of somewhere well away from large bodies of water and from karst geology,” Mr. Dulzo said. “It must be in a place where a disaster is literally impossible, not merely unlikely, to happen. ‘Unlikely’ is how bad accidents happen.”

Tom Karas, director of the Interlochen-based Michigan Energy Alternatives Project, questioned Wolverine’s request for a Type III landfill permit. A Type III landfill permit is for non-hazardous materials like wood debris and some construction material.

Mr. Karas said he thought the permit for the landfill should be denied, but if approved, at a minimum, it should be for a more stringent Type II landfill, noting the contents of coal ash.

“You could not get one single person in this room to admit that a waste product that consists of arsenicberyllium,boroncadmiumchromiumchromium VIcobaltleadmanganesemercurymolybdenumseleniumstrontium,thallium, vanadium and dioxins is anywhere close to non-hazardous,” Mr. Karas said. “This would just be a large joke if it were not so serious.”

He went on to say that Wolverine’s landfill could fill up in a matter of years, and the utility has not provided details for what it will do with additional coal ash over the estimated 50-year life span of the coal plant.

“It appears that we are in another unique point in our history,” Mr. Karas said. “Will Presque Isle County and the State of Michigan be seen as the last place in the country to permit a landfill for coal combustion waste in a non-hazardous landfill application, and one that was obviously undersized for the waste stream? Will the rest of the country look at our state and your department and exclaim, ‘What were they thinking?’”

The state agency will accept written comments on the landfill proposal through Feb. 12. They can be emailed to Mr. Phillip Roycraft at the MDNRE, Roycraftp@michigan.gov. Letters also can be mailed to Mr. Roycraft at: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Environment, Waste and Hazardous Materials Division, 120 W. Chapin St., Cadillac, MI 49601.

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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