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In Rogers City, Pushback to Coal Rush

Hearings, co-op meeting unearth economic, environmental opposition to proposed local plant

November 12, 2008 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Lee Sprague/Sierra Club
  Former State Attorney General Frank Kelly, whose law firm has represented electric utilities, warmly endorsed the proposed Rogers City coal plant at last month’s MDEQ hearings there.
ROGERS CITY—Late last month, more than 600 people showed up at the public high school here to comment on a state agency's tentative approval of a coal-fired power plant a utility wants to build next to this small Lake Huron port city.

Such strong attendance at the public hearings in a city of just 3,300 people again confirmed that the proposed plant, which Wolverine Power Cooperative claims will cost $1.2 billion to build at the bottom of a huge limestone quarry just beyond the city limits, is still the talk of the town—and of surrounding Presque Isle County—two and a-half years after it was unveiled.

From small gatherings at a senior center to coordinate distribution of pro-Wolverine lawn signs and flyers, to this summer’s Wolverine-sponsored “thank-you picnic” in a lakeside park, to a recent electric co-op annual membership meeting and last month’s Michigan Department of Environmental Quality hearings at Rogers City High School, residents show up in impressive numbers when the subject is the power plant.

Most residents favor the project, known formally as the Wolverine Clean Energy Venture; they believe it would bring hundreds of badly needed jobs to the region, among Michigan’s most economically depressed.

But the proposed 600 MW plant, part of a “Michigan coal rush” that could bring eight new plants to a state with flat or declining electrical demand, is also drawing more local, regional, and statewide opposition than when it was first unveiled in May of 2006. The plant would generate enough power to supply about 480,000 households, more than twice the number of customers that Wolverine actually serves.

Environmental groups and some local citizens are objecting to the coal rush because burning coal accelerates global warming and harms local air and water quality. Public health groups and clinicians say that some of its emissions would harm the elderly and the very young. And smart growth groups assert that building more coal plants will delay Michigan’s economic recovery by saddling thousands of families and businesses in the state with big, risky debts and higher electricity rates while creating far fewer jobs than similar investments in clean energy.

Dozens of people directed similar criticisms at the Rogers City project during the MDEQ hearings here. A week earlier, the same thing occurred at the annual membership meeting of the Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op, which partially owns Wolverine and buys all of its electricity from the firm.

Both gatherings revealed starkly different views of the proposed plant, as well as very different approaches to supporting or opposing it.

Praise for Wolverine, MDEQ
At the state hearings, held on Oct. 29 and 30, MDEQ Hearings Officer Vinson Hellwig began each session by reminding the audience that, just because his agency issued a draft permit for Wolverine’s proposal on Sept. 23 “does not mean we’ve decided to approve the plant.”

“The draft permit is meant to be a guide and a reference for people who want to comment on the plant,” he said, sitting behind a small table facing about 100 people in folding chairs and hundreds more in the gymnasium’s bleachers.

Local officials, including Rogers City’s mayor, city manager, and planning commission members, as well as township trustees and economic development executives, were allowed to speak first each evening. Most told Mr. Hellwig that their organizations or jurisdictions had unanimously passed resolutions favoring the plant.

Once the meeting was opened to the general public, most plant supporters emphasized that they trusted MDEQ and Wolverine to do the right thing; many also criticized what they said were opponents’ “fear tactics.” They urged the agency to finalize Wolverine’s draft “Permit to Install” quickly so that more jobs would quickly come to the community.

Tom Moran, owner of Moran Iron Works Inc., an Onaway company that is one of the county’s largest employers, thanked Wolverine for the help he says his fabricating and installation firm received as its power needs grew.

“I love Wolverine,” he said. “Let’s get behind a proven leader, one that is dedicated to protecting the environment.”

Steve Swan, a retired Michigan Department of Natural Resources employee who said he is “passionate” about the environment, said he hesitated when Wolverine recruited him as a consultant. But he’s now convinced that the firm has a great amount of integrity.

“You can trust Wolverine!” he exclaimed.

Dan Glawe, a self-described “lumber and wood guy” in the county, said he was “totally impressed by Wolverine over the years,” and added that he found the company to be “flat-out amazing” in its dedication to “really do their homework.”

Like many others who spoke up for the plant, Mr. Glawe also praised MDEQ’s accomplishments. He said that, over the years, the agency has managed to cut the air pollution from all sorts of fuel-burning that used to visually pollute the region.

“Now,” he said, “there’s no more black snow.”

And Richard Vogelheim, a longtime clothing store owner, said he was frustrated by all of the delay the proposal has encountered.

“We should be begging for this plant,” Mr. Vogelheim said, adding that he had more faith in MDEQ official than in what he said were the “paid experts” opposing the project.

But many of the pro-Wolverine comments may have missed their mark: At the beginning of each hearing, Mr. Hellwig told the crowd that, legally, his agency could not consider the popularity of the proposal or comments that had nothing to do with the contents of the permit.

More Sway?
The comments of many plant critics were more focused on the permit’s particulars, and could hold more sway with MDEQ.

Some critics cited medical research showing that the plant’s sulfur and nitrous oxide emissions would affect local residents’ lung and pulmonary health and that its mercury emissions could do neurological damage to fetuses and young children.

Kay McDaniel, a nurse, cited precise provisions of the state’s environmental regulations to argue that the draft permit illegally allowed emissions that cause disease.

“I’m a nurse who’s seen the damage and death done by these pollutants,” she said. Ms. McDaniel added that, if the plant is built, she and her neighbors would “come to know the true meaning of ‘a dying town.’”

Bay City resident Yelisa Pfeiffer, who said her area already has two coal plants and another one on the drawing boards, criticized the draft because, she said, it “fails to meet federal and Michigan Environmental Protection Act standards. It does not protect us from fine particle pollution, it fails to meet the Best Available Control Technology standard because it allows the burning of a dirtier fuel.”

Ms. Pfeiffer also pointed out that, according to documents filed with MDEQ, the much larger coal plant now proposed for Bay City would emit less oxides of nitrogen, which can cause pulmonary and cardiac distress, than the Rogers City project.

“How is this possible?” she asked, and speculated that the difference is due to the Wolverine’s use of petroleum coke instead of coal as its main fuel.

Several plant opponents said that, given MDEQ’s decision to allow Wolverine to burn cheaper but more problematic “pet coke”—a waste product from crude oil refineries—because the company claimed an “economic hardship,” it was fair to raise economic arguments about the entire draft permit.

In a letter from the Michigan Land Use Institute read at the hearing, the non-profit organization said that requiring Wolverine to use energy efficiency and renewably energy to meet electrical demand would make much more sense than building a coal plant.

“Research consistently confirms that efficiency is a much cheaper way to manage demand than increasing energy supply,” Hans Voss, the Institute’s executive director, wrote, adding that, “some renewable sources are now less expensive than coal and…efficiency and renewables create far more jobs…If MDEQ did a thorough, rather than a limited, economic analysis, it would discover significant economic problems with this proposal.”

MDEQ’s decision about the Wolverine draft permit—it can grant final approval, require the company to make operational changes, or deny a final Permit to Install—will not be known until early next year. The agency is accepting written comments until January 6, 2009, the date of the final public hearing on the plant, which will be held in Lansing at 1 p.m. on that date.

Surprise Quorum
The PIE&G annual meeting, held on Oct. 24 at Posen High School, about 15 miles from here, packed the biggest surprise. Coal plant opponents managed to conjure up an exceedingly rare quorum for the meeting, allowing them to propose and get a vote on a resolution questioning the economic and environmental wisdom of Wolverine’s project.

The resolution would have required PIE&G to suspend its support of the project until members had a chance to thoroughly evaluate those concerns. But a number of factors led to the defeat of the resolution, including the afternoon’s agenda, which consigned new business to the very end of the three-hour meeting.

But by the time the resolution was introduced, most attendees were eager to end the meeting and participate in the popular annual members door prize drawing. So some people already inclined to oppose the resolution complained loudly when supporters tried to discuss it.

The supporters did manage to make some of their points before a parliamentary maneuver cut them off and forced a quick vote. About 10 percent of the members favored the resolution.

Although the resolution’s backers were crestfallen, Mark Kresowik, a national Sierra Club staff member advising members of local co-ops who are opposing their companies’ moves toward new coal plants, said that the PIE&G meeting actually succeeded.

“If you compare a member resolution at a cooperative to a shareholder resolution at an investor-owned company, 10 to 15 percent on the first vote is excellent,” Mr. Kresowik wrote in response to an emailed question. “The highest votes shareholder resolutions on climate change have received are between 30 and 40%, and that's after a few years of trying. First votes are usually less than 10 percent.” 

“With a good organizing and education effort,” he added, “PIE&G members can hope to pass similar resolutions at the next annual meeting or convince management that the coal plant is not in the best interests of the cooperative.”

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s managing editor, and coordinates the Institute’s New Energy Ideas program. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.

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