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Coal-Powered Plant Fires Up Hot Dispute in Manistee

March 17, 2004 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Gary Howe

Hundreds of people attended the Manistee Planning Commission’s public hearings about permitting the construction of a coal-fired power plant in the city. Plant opponents outnumbered supporters by more than four to one.

MANISTEE — A proposal to build a $700 million, 425 megawatt coal-fired power plant is generating an intense local debate about energy, the environment, and quality of life in this coastal city, which has been shedding its industrial past for new, tourist-based economic growth.  

The controversy could involve Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s administration. The plant, known as Northern Lights, requires a state air emission permit from the Department of Environmental Quality — a test of the governor’s commitment to eliminate all emissions of mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin in coal, by 2020. 

No Middle Ground 
A proposal by a local Indian tribe to instead build a large alternative energy project is sharpening the controversy. So are concerns that Northern Lights would pour thousands of tons of pollution into the region’s air, saddle residents with the plant’s financial and environmental costs, produce few local benefits, and turn the city away from the tourist- and luxury home-based economic renaissance that helped it weather the decline of its once-thriving industrial base. 

Joe Tondu, owner of Houston-based Tondu Corporation and Manistee Saltworks Development Corporation, the Tondu subsidiary that proposed the plant, told a packed Manistee Planning Commission public hearing on February 19 that the plant would be the cleanest coal-burning power plant in the state  and spur strong economic growth.

He said that redesigned pollution controls would cut the plant’s emissions to well below what the company promised in its original DEQ air permit application. “Our Northern Lights power project holds an exciting future for Manistee, our company, and the state of Michigan,” Mr. Tondu said in a Web-based press release. But the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, which owns a profitable casino near Manistee, says that an environmentally benign alternative energy project it wants to build is a much better choice for the region. The band’s Little River Casino Resort could likely support the effort; its 900-employee, $40 million annual payroll is the county’s largest.

Lee Sprague, the Ogemaw or leader of the Little River Band, said the project would employ more people than Northern Lights and complement the area’s recreational economy. “All the profits would stay in the community,” Mr. Sprague said.

Tondu History In Region  Produces Discord 

MLUI/Gary Howe

At a public hearing, Joe Tondu claimed his proposed power plant would release less mercury than most coal-burning facilities.
In 1990, Tondu Corporation built the last coal-burning power plant in Michigan, a small facility located on Manistee Lake in Filer Township, adjacent to the city of Manistee. The plant is unpopular for several reasons, including the nine-year legal battle it waged against the township and county over its taxes. The local governments eventually won, but it cost them $800,000 to do so. Township Supervisor Dana Schindler adds that coal dust from the Filer plant also upsets many township residents “There’s a standing joke in Filer,” Ms. Schindler said, referring to frequent complaints she says she receives about the plant. “If you wash your car at night you better put it in the garage or it will be black in the morning.”
Air and water quality are already problematic throughout the region. Mason and Benzie Counties, respectively just south and north of Manistee County, do not meet federal air quality standards while Manistee County’s has never been officially evaluated. Michigan has issued health advisories for every inland lake in the state because of mercury contamination in fish.
Those environmental concerns have motivated a long list of organizations to oppose the Northern Lights facility. They include: Northern Lights include Manistee Citizens for Responsible Development, Sierra Club, Aurora Association, Lake Michigan Federation, Little Manistee Watershed Conservation Council, Asthma Coalition of Northwest Michigan, American Lung Association of Michigan, Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, Spirit of the Woods Conservation Club, Manistee County Democrats, Manistee Conservation District, and Kalamazoo River Protection Association.
In addition, Bear Lake Village, Manistee County, and Pleasanton, Brown, Bear Lake, Onekema, and Cleon townships  have each requested that the City of Manistee conduct independent economic and environmental impact studies before proceeding.  

In-Town Problems, Outstate Profits 
Northern Lights’ 250-foot-tall main building and 400-foot smokestack would dominate Manistee’s Victorian-era skyline; its boilers would annually consume 1.8 million tons of coal. Documents filed with the state by Tondu Corporation indicate Northern Lights would annually pour into the atmosphere 2,693 tons of smog-producing nitrogen, 4,444 tons of acid rain-triggering sulfur dioxide, and hundreds of pounds of mercury.

Documents obtained by citizen groups say the plant’s electricity would flow to members of two Michigan municipal electrical generating consortiums, who would own the plant and sell their excess power on the national electric grid. Because municipalities are tax-exempt, Northern Lights would not pay any of the at least $11 million it would owe if it was privately held, according to an experienced municipal tax estimator. One internal report reveals that the project budgeted just 4 percent of that amount — $400,000 — for service fees to Manistee in lieu of taxes. 

Fred MacDonald of the Manistee County Convention and Visitors Bureau said that Manistee would be foolish to agree to such an arrangement. “We should get a significant tax base,” he said. “I’m not talking a half-million dollars. That is a pittance.”

Reach Jim Dulzo, managing editor, at jimduzo@mlui.org.

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