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Proposed Coal Plant Switches Fuels, Stirs Controversy

As hearings loom, Rogers City project gets state OK to burn cheaper, dirtier fuel

October 6, 2008 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Wolverine Power wants to use petroleum coke as its primary fuel in a power plant it has proposed for a limestone quarry on Lake Huron in northeast Lower Michigan.
ROGERS CITY—When Wolverine Power Cooperative came to this small port city in 2006 and proposed building a 600 MW coal-fired power plant in the huge limestone quarry wedged between the town and Lake Huron, officials called their proposal the Wolverine Clean Energy Venture.

The proposal excited many residents here and in surrounding Presque Isle County.

Good jobs in this rural county of about 14,000 are extremely scarce, and Clean Energy Venture proponents claimed that the $1.2 billion plant would provide as many as 100 full-time jobs and several hundred additional “ripple effect” jobs.

“I would say that the community support is probably 95 percent,” Rogers City Mayor Beach Hall said several weeks ago. “The most often asked question I get is, ‘When is it going to get here?’”

That strong public support was one reason the Presque Isle County Planning Commission approved a special use permit (SUP) for Wolverine’s proposal so quickly—barely two months after company officials publicly unveiled it in the spring of 2006.

However, the commission issued the SUP over objections from three members who said that Wolverine had not adequately answered questions about the coal plant’s environmental impacts. Now, more than two years later, although the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued a draft air emissions permit for the plant on Sept. 23, and announced a public comment period and public hearings on the matter at Rogers City High School on Oct 29 and 30, the vagueness of Wolverine’s county SUP application—and Presque Isle’s speedy approval of it—may be coming back to haunt the company.

That is because of the discovery that the electric cooperative actually plans to burn large amounts of petroleum coke—a waste product from oil refineries—and only small amounts of coal, an intention that Wolverine’s county SUP application does not mention.

“Wolverine pointed out the power plant could burn alternate fuels in their presentation,” according to Presque Isle County Planning Commissioner Bud DeLong. “But at no time did they indicate they were applying for a permit for anything but coal.”

That omission, and the realization that using “pet” coke would boost the plant’s sulfur emissions and create significant storage and disposal challenges, is stirring controversy.

After hearing of the fuel change, and following an extended debate on what Wolverine’s SUP actually allows, the county planning commission voted 4 to 3 this July to require a public hearing about using petroleum coke before the plant can burn it.

So far, the utility has rejected the commission’s requirement. The MDEQ draft permit, however, tentatively approves using pet coke as its primary fuel—a rare practice in the domestic utility industry, according to a 2006 federal inventory of the country’s more than 4,800 generating plants. The inventory indicates only two plants burned mostly pet coke that year.

Cheaper but Dirtier
Although company officials refused to comment for this article, most observers agree that Wolverine wants to burn pet coke because it is now quite cheap compared to coal, which has in recent years doubled in price.

So the company is pushing back. At the commission’s September 18 meeting, company representative Ken Bradstreet urged the body to reverse its position and allow the plant to use petroleum coke without holding a public hearing.

“Wolverine is confident that the facts—as opposed to scare tactics, bad information, and baseless accusations—will lead any fair-­minded individual to the conclusion that this project is good for the community, good for the state, and good for the environment,” Mr. Bradstreet said, reading from a letter signed by company president Eric Baker.

But plant opponents say that the coal plant’s design, both as proposed by Wolverine and as initially accepted by the MDEQ, belies that claim. They are urging the local commission to require the plant to operate as cleanly, rather than as cheaply, as possible by burning only the cleanest fuels and always running its pollution controls at full throttle.

According to attorneys at the non-profit Environmental and Law Policy Center in Chicago, however, the MDEQ’s draft permit requires neither. They say it bows to Wolverine’s request for “fuel flexibility”—burning up to 70 percent pet coke—without determining whether that fuel mix is the cleanest available. The draft would also allow the plant to cut back its pollution controls when burning coal, which contains less sulfur than pet coke.

Sulfur emissions, scientists agree, trigger haze and forest-damaging acid rain, harm lungs, and exacerbate heart problems, while pet coke’s high, toxic, heavy metal content poses significant fuel storage and ash disposal problems.

Big Advantages
Wolverine had reason to expect that its drive to build a power plant here would be fairly easy, and not only because the community is economically distressed.

The Gaylord-based company has strong local connections: It is partially owned by the local co-op, Presque Isle Electric & Gas.

Moreover, the county’s most prominent elected leader, Presque Isle County Board of Commissioners Chairman Allan Bruder, sits on both the PIE&G and Wolverine Power boards of directors. Commissioner Bruder is paid tens of thousands of dollars annually by the co-ops and has pushed long and hard for the plant.

Wolverine also sees great advantage in building the plant in the quarry: It boast docks for coal-toting lake freighters and a ready source of limestone, a key mineral for controlling air emissions.

The proposed plant’s proximity to Lake Huron is another major advantage. Some have suggested that the plant would use the Lake Huron water that constantly seeps into the quarry to cool the coal plant’s boilers, instead of pumping it back into the lake.

And, Mayor Hall points out that Rogers City’s proud history of Great Lakes shipping—it was a company town for U.S. Steel and home port for limestone-hauling freighters—also makes Wolverine’s proposal a good fit.

“Frankly, from my personal viewpoint, it makes extremely good sense,” the mayor said. “(It is a good) utilization of land and utilization of (our) transportation resources...it’s well away from the community, (and) relatively inconspicuous.”

Urgent Questions
But placing a coal plant in the big quarry poses thorny storage and disposal challenges. Like much of Presque Isle County, the quarry has highly porous “karst” geology, and it is also located close to the city’s drinking water supply. That poses run-off problems for the plant’s large fuel piles and the boiler ash the company wants to bury—problems that pet coke would intensify.

Questions about the plant’s environmental impact first surfaced in 2006, shortly after Wolverine applied for its SUP. Three planning commissioners, including Mr. DeLong, former commissioner Tom Harkleroad, and now-deceased Dennis “Sam” Felax, asked company representatives about Wolverine’s plan to bury ash in the quarry.

Mr. Harkleroad said that when he first looked at Wolverine’s proposal in 2006, he realized the landfill was going to be below Lake Huron’s water line. He became concerned that runoff from the landfill could feasibly find its way into the lake.

“I’d never heard of a landfill below the lake level, right next to the lake,” he said. “How do you put that fly ash, with all that mercury and heavy metals, down in that hole below the lake level? They are pumping water out of (that) hole constantly. How are you doing that without putting that mercury and heavy metals back out into the water?”

The former commissioner said he expected to hear direct, simple answers to his landfill and runoff questions. But, he said, “They wouldn’t answer the questions.”

Commissioner DeLong said he, too, wanted to know how the company would protect Lake Huron from the coal plant. When Wolverine gave him literature showing a comparable coal plant in Florida surrounded by water, he investigated how that facility handled its ash.

That, he said, is when he discovered what he thought was a significant difference between the Florida and Rogers City plants: “When I called that plant, I found out they weren’t burning coal. They were burning petroleum coke, and, yeah, they had a landfill, but it was located off-site.”

In recent interviews, both Mr. DeLong and Mr. Harkelroad said they always presumed that Wolverine plant would burn only coal. That, they pointed out, is what the county SUP application said the Clean Energy Venture would burn.

Mr. DeLong said it was in September 2007, more than a year after the planning commission approved the SUP, that he discovered that the company was planning to burn mostly petroleum coke, plus some biomass and a little coal at the Clean Energy Venture. He discovered that while reviewing Wolverine’s MDEQ air quality permit application,

“I said, ‘That’s not what we approved,’ and this is now is a year or two later.”

How Clean?
Now the fuel-change issue is becoming crucial.

Petroleum coke, according to a presentation given by the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Jim Dulzo and Michigan Energy Alternatives’ Tom Karas to the planning commission at the same Sept. 18 meeting poses special challenges in storage, burning, waste transport, and disposal because it contains toxic heavy metals and emits high levels of sulfur oxides.

Both speakers pointed out that the MDEQ is only required to make sure the plant meets the minimum air pollution standards set by the federal Clean Air Act, and urged commissioners to hold Wolverine to a higher standard.

About 10 days ago, the MDEQ released its draft permit for Wolverine and launched a 60- day public comment period that includes two days of public hearings in Rogers City, on Oct. 29 and 30. MDEQ will accept written comments until November 24.

According to an attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Chicago-based organization tracking Wolverine’s application, the MDEQ draft not only allows the plant to burn petroleum coke and therefore emit higher levels of sulfur oxides, it also allows the plant to emit those higher levels even when it using coal, which contains less sulfur, because the company will be allowed to throttle back its pollution control during coal-burning periods.

That is one reason why the attorney, Faith E. Bugel, sent several letters to Presque Isle County Zoning Administrator Jim Zakshesky stressing the importance of the fuel change. The letters were co-signed by the Michigan Land Use Institute, The Sierra Club, the Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan Energy Alternatives, and Clean Water Action. In the letters, Ms. Bugel urged the planning commission to require the company to run its plan in the cleanest manner possible.

“The plans to burn pet coke…have huge implications for the proposed project,” she said in one of the letters “We...respectfully request that these plans be considered grounds for revocation (of the permit.)”

Now, observers say, Wolverine must decide between avoiding cheaper, dirtier petroleum coke, or facing a public hearing that reveals that, by its own design and the state’s permission, the company wants to operate its Clean Energy Venture less cleanly than it actually could.

Part 2 of this story reports on Presque Isle County Planning Commission’s internal debate over whether it had allowed Wolverine’s Clean Energy Venture to burn petroleum coke. Glenn Puit, a veteran investigative journalist, is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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