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In Ohio, Rumblings About Pet Coke

As Rogers City plant faces final hearing, Buckeyes warn against dirtier fuel

December 22, 2008 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Ohio’s Bay Shore power plant releases large amounts of dust from petroleum coke ash into the air when trucks load and haul away the substance.
Part One of a two-part article

OREGON, Ohio—Eight years after a utility began burning petroleum coke in addition to coal at its 620 MW power plant here, many local residents say that use of the new fuel has turned the plant into a dirty, dusty, noisy nuisance that they wish had never been built in their community.

The addition of petroleum coke—something that at least one proposed coal plant in Michigan also would use—occurred in 2000, when the utility, FirstEnergy Corp., began operating a new boiler capable of burning the material. Many local residents interviewed last month by the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service said that they noticed the change almost immediately, and that it is harming their neighborhood.

But research by the news service reveals that the effects of burning “pet coke”—an oil refinery waste product that is cheaper than coal—go well beyond the ones that residents here can see and smell, and that they described in recent, videotaped news service interviews.

(Editor's note: The correct URL for the comment guide listed at the end of this video is www.cleanenergynowMI.org)

Burning pet coke, according to an industrial trade association, produces about 50 percent more ash than burning coal, and that ash contains many toxic heavy metals. And, according to federal records that track U. S. power plant emissions, burning petroleum coke also increase smokestack gases that experts say can cause or worsen certain lung and heart problems and produce acid rain.

Such research and the complaints of residents living within a mile of the FirstEnergy Corp Bay Shore power plant confirm the concerns of residents and citizen groups opposing a coal plant in Rogers City, Mich. that would also burn the substance. The proposed plant, part of Michigan’s “coal rush”—a push by eight utilities to build new coal-fired power plants in the state—has received tentative permission from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to burn mostly pet coke.

The MDEQ will conduct its last public hearing on that plant’s draft permit on Jan. 6 in Lansing before making a final decision about the plant’s Permit to Install, which the agency issued in draft form on September 23 to Midland-based Wolverine Power Cooperative. If MDEQ approves Wolverine’s Rogers City plant, however, it will still face one more local hurdle—a public hearing by a local planning commission about its proposed use of the controversial fuel.

Meanwhile, concerns about pet coke are spreading across the United States: Utilities are seeking permission to construct about 100 new coal-fired power plants, and at least some of them would use pet coke to save money. The comments of residents living close to the Bay Shore power plant indicate that people living near those plants, including the Rogers City project, could face a list of unpleasant, unhealthy side effects if they do indeed burn large quantities of the substance.

There Goes the Neighborhood
Commercial fisherman Frank Reynolds, who lives close to the Bay Shore facility, said that he had few problems with the plant until it started burning pet coke. Since then, he said, his neighborhood has become a dusty, noisy mess, and the black and gray residue that floats through the air has ruined his front porch.

“Up until about the year 2000 it was fine, until they built this new unit that’s on there to burn the pet coke,” Mr. Reynolds said. He added that the string of problems resulting from the burning of the oil refinery residue include “dust, noise—mainly noise—and heavier truck traffic.”

The increased traffic stems from the greater amounts of ash that petroleum coke produces. Others who live near the Bay Shore plant expressed similar complaints.

Greg Coburn said he had to tear down his pool because it was always filled with soot. He has to regularly power wash his house to get the soot off, and said his neighborhood shudders from an earthquake-like effect from steam blowing off from the expanded plant’s smokestacks.

Susan Isaacs said the plant now produces a dusty fog in her neighborhood. That has her concerned about her health and the health of her infant son.

“About 7 a.m., you wake up and there is dust everywhere,” Ms. Isaacs said. “It looks like fog but its not. It’s ash dust.”

Tammy Battista said that she, too, is concerned about the health of her children because of the petroleum coke burning.

“There’s problems with the smells, dust...the semi trucks that barrel past my house,” Ms. Battista said. “The streets are always dirty. You get a lot of mess.”

Money Matters
The chief attraction of substituting pet coke for coal, according to energy experts, is that it costs less than coal, whose price has more than doubled in the past few years.

“This has been a developing trend over about the past 10 years,” said Meleah Geertsma, an attorney and public health specialist with the non-profit Environmental Law and Policy Center, in Chicago. ELPC is working with a number of groups, including Sierra Club, the Michigan Land Use Institute, and Michigan Energy Alternatives Project, to stop the Rogers City plant, known as the Wolverine Power Cooperative Clean Energy Venture.

Attorney Geertsma, who specializes in air quality issues surrounding oil refineries and coal plants, said that, as the price of coal skyrockets, more utilities, including Wolverine, want to construct plants that use circulating fluidized bed technology (CFB), a process that can burn all sorts of fuels.

In its MDEQ application, Wolverine argued that it should be permitted to burn large amounts of pet coke because of financial hardship. The agency agreed, and tentatively decided to allow the Clean Energy Venture to emit more pollutants that it would if it used either of two other, cleaner-burning technologies—supercritical pulverized coal or coal gasification, neither of which can handle pet coke.

Ms. Geertsma said her organization would soon file comments on MDEQ’s draft permit for Wolverine—something any citizen also can do by Jan. 6. She said that, among other things, ELPC will argue that the permit violates state and federal law because its fuel choice does not meet “Best Available Control Technology” requirements, a technical standard that all power plants built in recent years must meet—including the boiler that First installed eight years ago.

Blowin’ in the Wind
If the MDEQ determines that Wolverine can burn pet coke in its proposed Rogers City plant, the company will still face one more hurdle regarding the fuel.

The Presque Isle County Planning Commission, which issued a special use permit (SUP) to Wolverine in 2006, has not approved pet coke. The company did not mention pet coke in its SUP application; the issue arose only after ELPC spotted pet coke in Wolverine’s MDEQ application for its Permit to Install, which regulates air emissions.

ELPC pointed out to the commission that the fuel change was significant and so required an amendment to its SUP. Then, last fall, some local residents and Sierra Club, Michigan Energy Alternatives Project, and Michigan Land Use Institute representatives addressed the planning commission about the issue. MLUI and MEAP presented a slideshow about the problems, some of which, as it turned out, residents of Oregon now complain about—and urged the commission to take steps to prevent them.

The planning commission then required Wolverine to request an amendment to its SUP for pet coke, and face a public hearing on the question. Wolverine, however, argues that an amendment is not necessary, although it has taken no legal action challenge the commission’s vote.

The company will not answer questions from Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, and its law firm has sent a letter to the Institute to that effect.

Like the groups at the September hearing, Ms. Geertsma pointed out that Wolverine has offered few specifics on how it plans to deal with the problems pet coke presents.

“There are some components of this that are concerning,” she said of Wolverine’s local and state permits. “One is the storage and transportation issue. Petroleum coke is a dark black, dusty material, and it can blow around in the wind very easily if certain precautions aren’t taken to contain it. Wolverine has indicated it will be stored in uncovered piles and these will be on the edge of Lake Huron.”

“Another problem is that pet coke is very high in heavy metals,” Ms. Geertsma added.

She also emphasized the problem with the large amount of ash that pet coke produces—about 50 percent more than coal. Wolverine indicated in its SUP application that it would store the ash in an on-site landfill. But opponents say there have been few, if any, assurances from Wolverine that the landfill will not harm Lake Huron or people living near the power plant via windblown transfer of the pet coke dust or runoff from the landfill.

“A lot of it depends on...how much they do to control the wind erosion,” Ms. Geertsma said.

Free Advice
Meanwhile, residents of Oregon continue to endure the results of the same kind of wind erosion. Mr. Reynolds said that the black soot from the piles of petroleum coke and coal and the dust from the fly ash rolling off of the heavy truck traffic cause problems for neighborhoods more than a mile away from the facility.

“It depends on how much the wind is blowing,” he said. “That dust will carry clear on down to the other neighborhood.”

Some observers warn that if neither the county SUP nor the MDEQ permit contain specific dust-control requirements, Rogers City-area residents and officials could have a hard time forcing the company to do something when there is a problem.

The experience of Oregon’s residents, and public records obtained by the Institute, seem to confirm that concern. The records indicate that residents’ complains prompted the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to investigate Bay Shore’s dust problem after it started using pet coke. The plant said it remedied the issue as much as possible in paperwork filed with Ohio EPA.

But neighbors say the dust and noise problems continue.

Given the experience of the Oregon residents, it is perhaps no surprise that many of them agree that, if they could choose, they would like the Bay Shore power plant to go away. They also advised Michigan residents to oppose any facilities that burn coal and petroleum coke.

“I would ask them not to do it,” Ms. Battista said.

“If you can do without it, do without it,” Mr. Coburn said. “I know we need industrial jobs, but is it really worth your health?”

Click the Page 2 link at the top of this article to read Glenn Puit's report on the nationwide push for burning more pet coke. Glenn is a veteran investigative reporter who is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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