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Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010

We Energies Coal Plant Permit Renewal in Question

Should it switch from coal to natural gas?

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What’s worse than an aging coal plant that emitted more than 10 million pounds of sulfur dioxide, 3 million pounds of nitrogen oxide, 699 million pounds of particulates and 2.8 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in one year?

How about an aging coal plant that emitted all of those toxins but doesn’t have an up-to-date air permit?

Even worse, that coal plant disproportionately affects Downtown Milwaukee workers and the state’s largest concentration of African-American, Hispanic and Asian residents.

On Aug. 4, the environmental groups Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club filed a suit against the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for its failure to act on We Energies’ request for a renewal of its air permit for its Valley Power Plant, located on West Canal Street, in the heart of the Menomonee Valley. We Energies had submitted its request for a permit renewal on Feb. 20, 2008; the DNR failed to issue or deny the request by the 18-month deadline of Aug. 20, 2009.

We Energies and the environmental advocates, however, disagree on the practical implication of the expired permit.

“We’re operating under the permit that’s existing,” said Brian Manthey, spokesman for We Energies. He said that the plant is in compliance with all current air regulations.

But Katie Nekola, energy program director for Clean Wisconsin, disagrees.

“There’s no permit currently,” Nekola said. “That’s the problem—there’s nothing in place.”

DNR air specialist Dan Schramm said the Valley plant’s previous permit is in effect, and the DNR is reviewing the new application.

In the court papers filed by Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club, the groups argued that the permit is essential for monitoring the Valley plant’s compliance with the Clean Air Act.

Yet the DNR has not issued or denied the permit, or even released a draft permit for a 30-day public comment period, or sent a draft permit to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its 45-day review. Both of those reviews must be conducted prior to granting a final permit.

“Therefore, the Valley permit is not only already late, but it will be more than a year late when it is finally issued or denied,” court papers note.

But the DNR doesn’t have the final say on the permit—the EPA has a say in it, too, and could reject it. In fact, on Aug. 17, the EPA rejected the DNR’s proposed operating permit for the Edgewater Generating Station in Sheboygan, a coal plant owned by Alliant Energy, because it failed to include important pollution control requirements. This is the fourth coal plant operating permit in Wisconsin to be rejected by the EPA.

Seeking Environmental Justice

The battle over the expired permit is part of a larger conflict over the value and drawbacks of the 43-year-old coal-burning Valley plant, which provides electricity and steam heat to Downtown Milwaukee.

We Energies’ coal plants in Oak Creek and Pleasant Prairie have had their emissions controls upgraded. Its coal plant in Port Washington was converted to natural gas.

But according to terms of a settlement with the EPA in 2006, We Energies wasn’t required to upgrade the pollution controls at the Valley plant. We Energies’ Manthey said the other plants were upgraded because they’re larger and upgrading them would reduce more emissions than upgrading the smaller Valley plant. He said upgrades made in 2008 to the Valley plant would reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 50%.

But environmental and civic groups contend that the Valley plant’s aging infrastructure has had a disproportionate, adverse effect on Milwaukee’s minority residents.

In a joint statement, Midwest Environmental Advocates, the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin and the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation argued that We Energies’ failure to upgrade the Valley plant violates the Civil Rights Act and other federal regulations because of environmental justice impacts. While We Energies has made major changes to its coal plants in primarily white communities—Oak Creek, Pleasant Prairie and Port Washington—its Valley plant, which is surrounded by minority communities, hasn’t received the same attention.

They contend that asthma, which is caused and exacerbated by air pollution, is far more prevalent among blacks than whites and in southeastern Wisconsin.

“A number of us have been troubled for some time by the condition of the Valley plant spewing emissions essentially uncontrolled in the middle of the largest population center of the state, and smack-dab in the middle of the state’s largest low-income population center and the largest Hispanic population center and African-American population center,” said Dennis Grzezinski, senior counsel for Midwest Environmental Advocates. “Just looking at this pattern it seems to us that there’s a problem here.”

A Solution

The coalition is asking the state Public Service Commission—as part of its current review of utilities’ excess generating capacity—to force We Energies to retire, replace or upgrade the Valley plant.

Grzezinski and others have suggested that the Valley plant switch from coal to natural gas, which would markedly improve air quality in the heart of Milwaukee, allow for the removal of coal piles near the Potawatomi Bingo Casino and the Great Lakes Water Institute, and reduce carbon emissions.

“Natural gas is dramatically less carbon intensive than coal, so we’d be reducing our carbon footprint,” Grzezinski said.

That’s important because “retrofitting” old plants won’t reduce carbon emissions, said Nekola of Clean Wisconsin.

“The problem with retrofitting these coal plants is that you can reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides and mercury, but it doesn’t do anything to reduce carbon,” Nekola said. “There’s nothing you can put on a coal plant in Milwaukee that’s going to reduce carbon. Carbon capturing sequestration is not currently viable in Wisconsin. So you can put scrubbers on, and bag houses and mercury controls on, but you can’t do anything with carbon at this point. Obviously, that’s a major concern.”

We Energies’ Manthey said the utility is currently studying the long-term future of the Valley plant, which could include a fuel switch or upgraded pollution controls. He said the Valley plant would have to comply with anticipated changes to federal air regulations that will call for dramatic reductions in emissions.

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