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Presque Isle Officials Approve Mystery Coal Plant

Veteran county conmmissioner, on utility payroll, claims he had no role in decision

July 23, 2007 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Local officials approved building a coal plant at the bottom of the world’s largest limestone quarry, which is adjacent to Lake Huron and close to Rogers City’s water supply.

ROGERS CITY— A year after two local governments granted broad zoning approvals to build a coal-fired electrical generating plant at the edge of this once-thriving Great Lakes port city, the community still knows almost nothing more about the project other than that its proposed owner is the non-profit Wolverine Power Cooperative, based in Cadillac.

The blanket approvals came in the form of special use permits from the Rogers City Council and the Presque Isle County Planning Commission, which granted local permission even though Wolverine declined to share with them such basic information as how large the plant would be.

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Wolverine, which earned revenues of $184 million in 2005, according to the company’s tax filing, owns and operates five small electrical generating stations, 1,600 miles of transmission lines, and is owned by five smaller cooperatives in northern Michigan.

The company, founded in 1951, moved with care and speed to win local approvals for its vaguely described project, which, along with another proposal to construct a coal-fired plant in Midland, has again made northern Michigan an emerging center of potential new electrical generating capacity in the Midwest.

The state sits in the center of the country, within easy reach by rail and water of the nation’s largest supplies of coal in the Rocky Mountain West and the Appalachian states. Three years ago citizens in Manistee and Manistee city officials halted a plan to build a 425-megawatt coal-fired plant because of concerns about pollution and how the project was financed.

The proposals for new coal-powered electrical generating capacity have stirred considerable support here and in other Michigan cities from business leaders and workers interested in leveraging the two new plants, and perhaps a third in southern Michigan, for jobs and economic development. Michigan is struggling through an economic transition that has left it with the highest state budget deficit and unemployment rate in the nation.

But the new projects also are generating considerable concern from health advocates, environmentalists, and business specialists worried about air and water pollution, global climate change, and the thought of producing the state’s next generation of power from 19th-century steam-boiler technology and a notoriously dirty 18th-century fuel source.

"In my opinion Wolverine Power should not be getting a permit until they answer some questions," said Tom Harkleroad, who until last year was a member of the Presque Isle County Planning Commission, "whether it be at a state level, federal level, or anything else."

A Minority View
But Mr. Harkleroad’s is a minority view here. The plant enjoys strong support within Rogers City because the town has endured sky-high unemployment since the late 1960s. The city, which was essentially a company town for "the world’s largest limestone quarry" located right next door, long served as home port for the freighters that shipped limestone to American steel mills. But slackened domestic steel production, quarry mechanization, and fewer freighter trips have seriously hurt the local economy for decades. So most residents of this remarkably well-kept town are glad that their elected officials promptly approved the project—allowing the company to start the lengthy state permitting process.

"I would like to see us do things for the betterment of people in the area," said Allan Bruder, a 17-year elected member of the Presque Isle County Commission and a paid member of the Wolverine Board of Directors. In 2005, according to the IRS tax filing, Mr. Bruder earned $21,450 in compensation and $5,062 in an expense account from the utility. In an interview Mr. Bruder denied that, in his dual positions, he had any influence on the county planning commission vote.

Mr. Bruder’s potential conflict of interest is just one of the many issues that local opponents say they worry about. The proposed site is close to both Lake Huron and the city’s water supply. Clean energy proponents wonder why Michigan appears so eager to increase generating capacity from the dirtiest of all sources of energy, particularly in an era when global climate change is affecting the well-being of important Michigan industries, including the snow sports industry, which is suffering from shortened and much warmer winters, according to industry executives. Great Lakes water levels are also hovering at all-time historic lows, due to a long string of warmer winters.

Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, insists she’s an advocate of cleaner sources of energy. But Michigan’s record is weak. Some 24 other states offer strong efficiency and alternative energy incentives. A proposal to sharply increase the level of energy produced from renewable sources is encountering resistance from Republicans and the Granholm administration, which says it is too aggressive. Michigan also lacks statewide standards for utility-scale wind turbine placement and construction, which leaves green energy companies to confront a crazy-quilt of local regulations.

A Fog of Rumors
The lack of public information about Wolverine’s proposal prompted a fog of rumors, none of which the company would confirm or deny.

Proponents say, without confirmation from the company, that the project could bring 50 to 200 permanent jobs. Opponents scoff at that number and point to similar-sized, heavily automated plants elsewhere that employ as few as 15 people.

Some people here say Wolverine will build one very large facility; others thought it would be a group of smaller plants. Some say the company will also build wind turbines on the site, which runs along Lake Huron’s shore; others say the company will dump toxic coal ash at the bottom of the vast limestone quarry, which is close to the aquifer that supplies the city’s drinking water. Still others said the plant would burn cheap, particularly dirty coal as well as wood pellets.

A company spokesman based in Rogers City declined a request to speak on the record to the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, but promised an on-the-record interview with his company’s chief executive officer in the coming weeks.

Opponents have been consulting regularly with several statewide environmental groups about the proposed plant, but have not publicly announced any next steps, other than continued outreach to their neighbors.

"Our goal is to educate people as to what the real price tags of a coal burning power plant is," said Jean Veselenak, co-chair of Citizens for Environmental Inquiry, a local group that questions the proposal, "and also to persuade the state of Michigan not to allow this to happen in a place that is at the nexus of the Great Lakes Basin."

Ms. Veselenak said her organization is showing the award-winning documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, to community gatherings in Rogers City and across the county. She observed that the movie generally enjoys a far more positive reception in rural communities than it does in town.

Trust the State
Mr. Harkleroad, the former planning commissioner, is especially worried about the city’s drinking water supply, which lies below the quarry where the plant could be built, and is the site where Wolverine could bury its highly toxic coal ash.

"Wolverine supplied the information that they wanted us to see that would point out it was a ‘clean coal’ plant," he said "Any technical information as to how it would work, or what kind of mercury or heavy metals it would put out, was not supplied. They simply said they could not answer at this time."

But Commissioner Bruder said that simply does not worry him—nor should it. He said that the county and city did not look more closely at the project because officials trust that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which oversees the environmental permits, will protect area residents and environment.

"By the time somebody goes through the permits I believe they will make sure the people are safe. I am convinced of that," the commissioner said.

He added: "If we don’t build one power plant in Rogers City, is it going to change the quality of air over the whole world?"

Going Green Means More Jobs
Ironically, those pushing for modernizing the state’s energy policy instead of building new coal plants point to the same argument that Mr. Bruder and other Rogers City coal plant supporters do: Jobs.

Renewing America’s Economy, a study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists in September, 2004 found that requiring utilities to obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020 would produce a net gain of 4,900 jobs in Michigan. More generally, the study found that renewable energy sources produce 2.3 times more jobs than new natural gas and coal power plants.

In a separate study in 2001, researchers at the University of Illinois’s Regional Economics Application Laboratory determined that a regional plan to boost energy efficiency, renewable energy, and co-generation facilities, which produce both heat and power, would create 38,000 jobs in Michigan and increase the gross state product by $3.4 billion by 2020.

Shane Lopez, a senior at the University of Michigan, is studying and writing about energy issues this summer on the Michigan Land Use Institute’s news desk. Reach him at shane@mlui.org

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