Michigan Land Use Institute

Thriving Communities / News & Views / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / A Planning Commission’s Pet Coke Debate

A Planning Commission’s Pet Coke Debate

What did Presque Isle County’s commissioners know, and when?

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

The Presque Isle County Planning Commission has had difficulty deciding whether or not its special use permit (SUP) for the Wolverine Clean Energy Venture actually allows the utility to burn petroleum coke—a waste product from oil refineries.

County records indicate that, at the spring, 2006 public hearing regarding Wolverine’s SUP application, then-commissioner Dennis “Sam” Felax asked what, specifically, Wolverine would be allowed to burn. The record shows that Richard Wright and Mike Libby, respectively the planning commission’s chair and vice chair, said that the plant would only be allowed to burn coal.

Wording on the SUP application indicates the same thing.

“The special use permit request has two elements…the potential coal-fired power generation plant, and the prospective wind generation facility,” according to the application, prepared by Wade Trim, a Detroit-based planning and engineering company. “The goal for this site is to operate a clean, state-of -the-art, coal-fired power generating plant.”

When the planning commission subsequently approved Wolverine’s SUP in July of 2006, both Mr. DeLong and Mr. Harkleroad voted against it, stating that they weren’t satisfied with Wolverine’s inability to answer basic questions about locating a coal-ash landfill in the quarry, below the water level of adjacent Lake Huron.

More than a year later, in September 2007, Wolverine Power Cooperative submitted its air emissions permit application to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. But when planning commissioner Bud DeLong examined the application Wolverine submitted to the MDEQ, he discovered that the company was asking the state for permission to burn petroleum coke up to 70 percent of the time, and biomass up to 20 percent of the time.

Mr. DeLong raised the pet coke issue at the January 17, 2008 planning commission meeting, and asked for a clarification. The commissioners seemingly agreed that they had not included petroleum coke as an approved fuel.

According to county records, Presque Isle County Zoning Administrator Jim Zakshesky then wrote to Wolverine, and indicated that if Wolverine planned to burn anything other than coal, it would need to get an amendment to its county SUP.

“At the January 17 meeting of the Presque Isle County Planning Commission, some concern was raised regarding types of fuel that may be used in your proposed power plant in Presque Isle County,” Mr. Zakshesky wrote. “(The special use permit) was approved for a coal-based power plant only, as presented. Any other fuel would need additional approval by the Presque Isle County Planning Commission.’

Wolverine responded by submitting a request for an amendment to allow burning biomass, but said nothing about the petroleum coke question. The commission held a public hearing in May about biomass, as the law requires for SUP amendments.

More than 300 people turned out for the hearing, and most spoke strongly in favor of burning woody biomass—tree limbs, crop and logging waste, hay, switch grass, and other untreated, naturally occurring plant matter. Again, there was no mention of petroleum coke.

Meanwhile, according to county records obtained by the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, Mr. Zakshesky did an about face. Responding to a written request from Wolverine for a determination about pet coke, he declared that, under the original permit, pet coke was indeed an allowed fuel.

“This office does agree with you that the following fuels are permitted...coal, petroleum coke, (and) fuel oil,” Mr. Zakshesky wrote. (Fuel oil is a common “starter fuel” for firing up an inactive boiler.)

In an interview, the planning director said he concluded petroleum coke was allowed under the original permit, and that Wolverine didn’t need an amendment—or another hearing—to burn it.

The letter touched off more controversy.

At the July planning commission meeting, Mr. DeLong argued that there was no indication in the official record that the SUP allowed pet coke. Then, by just a one-vote margin, the commission reaffirmed that the electric cooperative would need another SUP amendment before it could burn petroleum coke. That would mean another public hearing, this time about storing, burning, and disposing of a material that emits contains more toxic heavy metals and more sulfur oxides than coal—and far dirtier than woody biomass.

At the September planning commission meeting, a Wolverine official urged the commission to reverse its stance.

But the commissioners declined to act and pointed to a letter from the planning commission’s attorney that said the record clearly indicated that petroleum coke was not included in Wolverine’s special use permit.

So far, the company has not requested an SUP amendment regarding petroleum coke.

Some observers say that is now much more likely, given that, as Wolverine hoped, the MDEQ draft air emissions permit allows the proposed Clean Energy Venture to burn pet coke up to 70 percent of the time.

Glenn Puit is a veteran investigative reporter and a Michigan Land Use Institute policy specialist. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org. Jim Dulzo is the Institute’s managing editor. Reach him at jim@mlui.org.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org