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‘Up North’ Skies Up for Grabs

State takes advantage of clean air to promote dirty electricity

January 25, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Joyce Petrakovitz, an artist and mother from Cadillac, was at the lake relaxing when a friend told her that the northern Michigan air she was breathing might soon not be so clean.

"He said that the state Department of Environmental Quality was quietly getting ready to issue a permit to let a plant in town burn tires to make electricity," Mrs. Petrakovitz recalled. "I wanted to know what it really meant."

Mrs. Petrakovitz, a brown-eyed woman with curly dark locks and a steady gaze, is well known for defending Wexford County’s clean air and water. Yet even an activist and researcher as skilled as Mrs. Petrakovitz was unprepared for the threat she found: A DEQ plan to solve the state’s waste tire problem by using northern Michigan’s clean air as a pollution dump.

DEQ Director Russell Harding has apparently decided that he can best reduce Michigan’s waste tire stocks by providing northern Michigan energy companies with a new source of fuel. And he can do that by issuing tire burning permits to the plants without requiring them to install "scrubbers," the industry’s basic pollution prevention equipment. Scrubbers prevent at least 80 percent of such tire-burning pollutants as sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, from entering the atmosphere.

State air quality officials agree they have the authority to require scrubbers, but insist they do not have to exercise that power. The $1 million to $2 million cost of scrubbers is a minor expense to the multi-billion dollar utilities that own the facilities. NRG Energy, Inc., which owns the Cadillac plant, earned $2 billion in total revenue in 2000.

Not dirty enough
Mary Ann Dolehanty, a unit supervisor in DEQ’s Air Quality Division, explained that northern Michigan’s air can become much dirtier before it runs afoul of federal air quality standards. It could get as thick as Houston or Los Angeles’ air before it exceeded allowable pollution levels.

The federal Clean Air Act does give Michigan considerable power to keep the air as pure as possible. But the agency invested with that authority is not inclined to use it, she said. "It looks as though that (Cadillac) proposal will not include scrubbers. ... The decision will be based on the regulations, and where we can push and where we can’t."

That’s not good enough for Mrs. Petrakovitz and other northern Michigan residents now organizing to change DEQ’s position.

"We’re turning our air, one of this region’s most important resources, into a giant air sacrifice zone," she said. "All for the sake of saving the multi-billion dollar utility companies that own these plants a few dollars. I think if more people in northern Michigan knew what was going on, they wouldn’t tolerate it."

DEQ’s policy of interpreting federal law to benefit companies, not people, is nothing new. The agency has been at war with the Clinton administration for nearly eight years over federal Environmental Protection Agency proposals to make air cleaner. The DEQ filed 10 lawsuits against EPA in recent years to stop new air quality standards that would require big companies to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, which cause smog. The DEQ also joined many of those same companies in a case pending before the U.S. Supreme to argue that EPA and state officials should base all Clean Air Act efforts on potential new business costs instead of human health effects.

Just the beginning
Cadillac Renewable Energy and a CMS Energy power plant in Grayling are the two latest wood chip-burning plants in northern Michigan to apply for permission to add tires to their fuel mix. The DEQ has since 1993 issued permits to three other wood chip plants in McBain (Missaukee County), Hillman (Montmorency County), and Lincoln (Alcona County) to burn a total of 45,920 tons of tires. Add the Cadillac and Grayling plants, plus a requested increase at Hillman, and the total comes to 102,495 tons.

It has become clear, however, that both more tire burning and more tire pollution is on the way. Two of the already-permitted plants now plan to double the amount of tires they burn. That’s troubling to residents and scientists because a doubling of tire volumes does not result in a mere doubling of tire pollution loads.

Burning tires along with wood causes a unique combustion chemistry that causes a sixfold increase in acid rain pollutants when a plant burns twice as many tires. That means that the level of acid rain pollutants the DEQ now plans to allow the five plants to produce æ 1,000 tons of sulfur dioxide annually æ could easily reach 6,000 tons or more every year as DEQ allows the plants to increase the amount of tires they burn without pollution controls.

Total sulfur emissions from northern Michigan tire-burning plants amount to a small portion of the more than 400,000 tons Michigan allows power plants and other industries to emit annually. But critics like Mrs. Petrakovitz point out that tire burning is a new and unnecessary source of pollution in northern Michigan. In addition to sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, tire burning produces many other toxic and hazardous pollutants. Scrubbers can stop most of that pollution from turning into public health and environmental problems, she said.

Toxic shell game
Mrs. Petrakovitz is not alone. Tom Rozich, a respected fisheries biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, says new sulfur emissions could increase the acidity of northern Michigan’s lakes and streams. That kills fish.

In a memorandum to the DEQ in September, 1999, Mr. Rozich wrote: "We in the Fisheries Division have grave concerns over this proposal." New, uncontrolled emissions could hurt area lakes and streams, he explained. An example is Berry Lake, which lies approximately 4.5 miles southeast of the Cadillac plant and is already slightly acidic. "Additional acid rain will be detrimental to the existing fish populations," he wrote.

Lynn Fiedler, a DEQ air quality regulator, also spelled out the environmental protection conflict for her colleagues in a 1999 memorandum. "The rules are designed not to trade a solid waste problem into an air problem,"she wrote.
A decade ago, Michigan joined other states in approving legislation to clean up tire dumps and strengthen oversight of scrap tire disposal. The 1991 law also called on the state to flex its regulatory muscle to find and promote alternative uses for scrap tires, such as recycling.

Michigan is making progress with cleanup and oversight. But of the roughly 8 million scrap tires it converts to alternative uses each year, it directs less than 2 million into production of retreads, landfill liners, playground equipment, and recycled rubber products.

Top incineration state
The state’s preferred "alternative use" for waste tires is incineration, which accounts for the remaining 6 million tires the state converts each year. Michigan is already the sixth largest user of so-called "tire derived fuel" in the country, according to the Scrap Tire Management Council, an industry trade group in Washington.

Michigan is poised this year to become the nation's second-largest tire burning state if DEQ approves the tire burning levels that energy plants in northern Michigan have requested. These additions would double the total number of tires Michigan burns to 12 million each year. Illinois, number one, burns 15 million tires a year.

Michigan is becoming a top state for incinerating tires because it is sending the scrap rubber to northern Michigan wood chip plants, which the Clean Air Act does not automatically require to use scrubbers. Michigan’s only downstate, tire-burning facility is a cement plant, which burns other materials as well. It has scrubbers and other protections in place only because public outcry in the mid-1990s over longstanding pollution forced the state to finally take action.

Northern Michigan residents want the same respect from state agencies. "We have clean air," Mrs. Petrakovitz says. "It’s what makes northern Michigan, northern Michigan. As citizens we need to do everything we can to make sure our air stays clean. It’s absurd that the state agency that’s supposed to do that isn’t, especially when the technology is available at a reasonable cost."

CONTACT(S): Joyce Petrakovitz, 231-779-8150, petroart@michweb.net; Mary Ann Dolehanty, 517-373-2098, dolehanm@state.mi.us; Tom Rozich, 517-775-9727.

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