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In Rogers City, Strong Criticism of Coal Ash Proposal

Residents warn against storing toxic waste near Lake Huron

September 10, 2009 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Joseph Veselenak, an opponent of the proposed coal plant in Rogers City, urged county commissioners to reject a landfill for the plant Tuesday night, saying it is a threat to future generations.
ROGERS CITY—A large number of Presque Isle County residents are questioning a plan to store massive amounts of toxic waste from a proposed 600 MW coal-fired power plant in the same giant limestone quarry near Lake Huron where the plant itself would be built.

The strong showing by the opponents at Tuesday evening’s special meeting of the Presque Isle County Board of Commissioners surprised the elected officials, and may mark at least a modest shift in the community’s attitude toward the plant proposal. The coal plant, proposed by the Wolverine Power Cooperative, has enjoyed strong local support since it was first unveiled in May 2006.

The sharp public opposition to the landfill was the second unpleasant surprise of the day for Wolverine officials: Just a few hours earlier, they had received word that the Michigan Public Service Commission had determined that the company did not need to build a new power plant to meet its customers’ future energy demands.

However, the almost 30 people who showed up at Tuesday night’s special county commissioners meeting—a group large enough to require moving the meeting to a larger room—were far more concerned about the water and air pollution problems they said would stem from locating the coal ash landfill in the quarry.

The county commissioners held the meeting solely to consider whether Wolverine’s plan is consistent with the county’s solid waste plan.

Officials from the Cadillac-based utility brought along a staff member from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to vouch for the safety of the proposed new location. But, unlike three years ago, when the county board quickly passed a resolution urging planning commissioners to approve the coal plant, on Tuesday evening dozens of citizens showed up to protest burying toxic waste so close to Lake Huron.

Wolverine executives were hoping for quick action by commissioners, affirming that their landfill plan was consistent with the county plan.

But, instead, they encountered a large group of people worried that storing massive amounts of fly ash from the plant, containing mercury and other heavy metals that cause a variety of health problems, could harm their community.

Their criticism appeared in the wake of continuing revelations that, across the country—including along Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, 175 miles south of here—heavily contaminated water is leaching from similar landfills due to poor enforcement of often lax local, state, and federal landfill standards.

A Chorus of Complaints
At Tuesday’s meeting, county resident Joseph Veselenak urged the commissioners to reject any vote of support for Wolverine’s landfill plans, saying they had a responsibility to think of the environmental dangers the fly ash will present to future generations.

“Please think about 50 years down the line,” Mr. Veselenak said in passionate remarks to the commission. “Twenty five years—please, think about our children so they don’t have to live with this garbage. And that’s what it’s going to be—garbage.”

Another county resident, Carol Reed, said she has always taken great pride in the fact that the Rogers City community boasts the largest limestone quarry in the world. Now, she said, Wolverine is proposing to build the coal plant in the quarry, which she said threatens Roger City history.

“I am concerned that we not create a landfill situation that we lose that (history) from us forever,” Mrs. Reed said. “You can’t go back and fix it later and it cannot be retrieved. That opportunity is lost from us forever.”

Wolverine’s landfill proposal drew a variety of other criticisms during the meeting.

Opponents questioned Wolverine’s claim that the landfill would pose no environmental threat to nearby water supplies. They expressed concern that there are not clear plans to cover the landfill, which they said would cause significant dust problems for nearby residents on windy days.

They also expressed alarm over the possibility that the mercury-laden fly ash would be used for road construction, posing still more health threats to the community.

And the landfill opponents also forced a Wolverine consultant to admit that, if the big pumps that drain the water that continually leaks into the quarry from Lake Huron failed for an extended period of time, the quarry and the landfill could turn into a “lake.”

Opponents also questioned why a MDEQ official was working so closely with Wolverine on the landfill proposal and answering questions from the public for the company before Wolverine had submitted a landfill permit application to that same state agency.

Changing Attitudes?
In the past, public meetings concerning the proposed plant, which Wolverine calls its “Clean Energy Venture,” reflected widespread support for the project, with only a few opponents willing to speak out strongly against the idea.

But Tuesday night’s meeting was sharply different. Opponents of the coal plant—or at least of locating a landfill in a quarry so close to inland and Great Lakes water—far outweighed the very small number of coal plant supporters.

Despite the criticism, however, a Wolverine spokesman, a lobbyist for the company, and two technical consultants tried to assure the commissioners that the landfill would pose no environmental threats.

The county board of commissioners took no immediate action, cut off the final public comment period before everyone who wanted to speak had their turn, ended the meeting, and did not indicate what their next step would be in considering Wolverine’s request for a resolution of support.

The commissioners held their regular board meeting on the following evening, September 9, and appointed a three-member subcommittee to look more closely at the question.

UPDATE--September 24, 2009

Last week, a subcommittee of the Presque Isle County Board of Commissioners continued to review whether Wolverine's proposed landfill is consistent with the county’s solid waste plan.

The commissioners determined that Wolverine will have to get at least two major amendments to the special use permit the county granted to Wolverine for the plant more than three years ago. One would allow the plant to burn petroleum coke, a byproducet of sludge from oil refineries, in place of coal; the other would allow the company to change the location of its coal ash landfill to another part of the quarry that was not included in the original county special use permit.

There is another meeting of the commissioners on this matter this Friday, September 25, at 9 a.m., at the county's offices in downtown Rogers City.

These developments come in the wake of last Thursday's Michigan Department of Environmental Quality public hearing, held at Rogers City High School, concerning particulate emissions from the Wolverine plant. A decision on the air quality permit for the Wolverine plant by the DEQ is pending.

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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