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State Denies Permit to Burn Tires Without Scrubbers

Citizen pressure upholds clean air law

March 30, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, on March 28, 2001, turned down a proposal by a utility in Cadillac to begin burning scrap tires as fuel without modern air pollution controls. The state also denied a second utility in Hilman permission to nearly double the amount of tires it burns without pollution controls.

The decisions were an abrupt about face for the state environmental agency. The DEQ asserted that public safety and the quality of the environment are paramount. But since 1993, the DEQ has permitted three plants in northern Michigan to burn nearly as many scrap tires as the Cadillac plant proposed without scrubbers. In all the cases, the DEQ asserted that the plants were in compliance with the Clean Air Act.

Indeed in an earlier draft written by the DEQ’s air quality division staff, and made public late in 2000, the state argued that scrubbers were not necessary in Cadillac because they were too costly and that sulfur pollution from the plant would not be high enough to justify the expense.

That view, however, came under sharp attack from the Cadillac Area Citizens for Clean Air, state environmental organizations, air quality technical specialists, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Opponents said the Clean Air Act clearly required scrubbers to minimize potential health and environmental risks from the levels of pollution that burning scrap tires in Cadillac would produce.

On February 21, 2001, more than 600 Cadillac-area residents turned up at a DEQ public hearing, to argue that in considering allowing tire incineration without scrubbers, the state was turning a solid waste disposal problem into an air quality problem. Moreover, they insisted that the cost of scrubbers — less than $1 million — was a reasonable investment to protect public health and the environment for the $2 billion a year energy company that owned Cadillac Renewable Energy. The citizens’ views were supported by Representative Rick Johnson, speaker of the Michigan House, and state Senator George McManus, who issued a joint statement five days before the hearing that urged the DEQ to “find a solution that’s best for the environment and the people of northern Michigan.”

Leaders of Cadillac Area Citizens for Clean Air, a grassroots group that led the nearly two year-old campaign to keep the region’s air as clean as it can be, said they were pleased. “We have won the battle, but not the war,” said Shelley Youngman, a Cadillac resident who was active in marshaling public opposition to the utility’s tire-burning proposal. “Tires should not be considered a viable source of fuel, nor an environmentally responsible way to use waste tires. We will encourage more investigation into using tires in the roads and other ways to recycle tires.”

Executives at Cadillac Renewable Energy, a 34-megawatt plant that opened in 1993, said they were astonished by the DEQ’s action. “This is a political decision,” Mike Whiting, president of Decker Energy, one of the plant’s owners, told the Grand Rapids Press. “The science and the facts do not support it. We’ve done business in Michigan for a long time and this is not the way things are usually done.”

That may be precisely the point. The swiftness of the decision and its decisiveness certainly heralds a marked change in how the DEQ considers tire burning in northern Michigan. “Both wet scrubbers and dry scrubbers are proven technologies for air pollution control and are readily available for use,” said Dennis Drake, chief of DEQ’s Air Quality Division, in a letter denying Cadillac Renewable Energy’s plan to burn tires. “Based on current practice, the installation and operation of a scrubber to control emissions of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid mist would also reduce emissions of particulate matter and hazardous air pollutants known to be present in the exhaust gases.”

Cadillac Renewable Energy wanted to become the fourth power plant in northern Michigan to burn scrap tires as fuel to make electricity. Three other plants in Hillman (Montmorency County), Lincoln (Alcona County), and McBain (Missaukee County) gained permits in the late 1990s to do the same thing without scrubbers.

The state allows the Viking Energy utilities in Lincoln and McBain to produce up to 247 tons of sulfur dioxide pollution annually, or two tons more than the amount of sulfur dioxide that Cadillac Renewable Energy proposed to emit from its plant. When asked about the apparent inconsistency, Mr. Drake said the DEQ was not prepared to review the operating permits of either plant. “We are not planning to look at adding permit requirements for scrubbers,” he said. The reason, according to Mr. Drake: Both plants are operating according to the clean air law. Critics of the agency, though, noted that the DEQ used similar language when the agency first began to review Cadillac Renewable Energy’s application to burn tires without scrubbers.

The Michigan Land Use Institute intends to challenge continued tire burning without pollution controls in northern Michigan.

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