OAK CREEK, Wis. — Environmentalists and the state of Illinois are lining up against a proposal to construct a mammoth coal-burning power plant on the shores of Lake Michigan, warning it will pollute the air and water across the Midwest and set off a “coal rush” to build more such projects around the country.
The project is actually a $2.15 billion expansion of a 1950s-era plant in this Milwaukee suburb 80 miles north of Chicago. The resulting complex would produce enough electricity for 615,000 homes, burn 1.5 million tons of coal a year, and draw 2.2 billion gallons of water from the lake each day, or almost as much as Chicago and 100 of its suburbs use.
The plant’s operator, We Energies, and the state Public Service Commission, which approved the project, say that it is the cheapest and best way to meet growing power needs in the busy Milwaukee-Chicago corridor and that the project complies with all environmental regulations.
Environmentalists would rather see a cleaner-burning natural gas plant, or at least a project that uses more advanced coal technology.
First wave feared
Bruce Nilles, the Sierra Club’s senior Midwest representative, said there are around 115 coal-fired power plants on the drawing board around the country because of the nation’s burgeoning demand for electricity, the fast-rising price of natural gas and a coal-friendly administration in Washington. He said the go-ahead for the Wisconsin project could be the signal the rest of the industry is waiting for.
“It is the largest of the first wave of this coal rush. It is a giant, giant coal plant. There are only one or two others bigger” in the country, Nilles said. “Other states are weighing in because of the regional and national significance of this coal plant. Every other utility’s going to say, ‘I want my coal plant, too.”’
The Wisconsin Supreme Court is weighing the future of the plant, which has come under legal challenge from environmentalists and others.
The plant would use pulverized coal to produce electricity, a relatively old-fashioned technology. But the state Department of Natural Resources and We Energies say modern emission controls will drastically cut the pollution.
Newer technology urged
Others argue in favor of gasification, a next-generation compromise between pulverized coal and natural gas. Gasification uses steam to turn coal into a gas before it is burned, producing lower greenhouse gas emissions and using about 40 percent less water. Only two U.S. plants, in Indiana and Florida, use the technology.
“The times have changed. You wouldn’t buy a 15-year-old computer today. It wouldn’t work very well. Likewise, you shouldn’t build yesterday’s coal plants today. That’s what We Energies is doing,” said John Thompson of the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based environmental group.
A plan to use gasification for one boiler at Oak Creek was rejected by regulators as unproven and too expensive. Gasification typically costs about one-fifth more than traditional coal burning.
“We have no choice but to build new plants. The question becomes what is the best choice for customers in terms of keeping the rates as low as possible,” We Energies spokesman Thad Nation said.
Gov. Jim Doyle has backed the plant. And Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Eryn Witcher said the agency is confident federal and state laws will ensure the plant does not threaten air quality in Wisconsin or neighboring states.
Neighbor fears mercury emissions
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has intervened in the lawsuit against the project, saying Lake Michigan and the states along it would be exposed to toxic mercury emissions and other pollution. Madigan said the coal-burning technology planned for Oak Creek is already banned in Illinois. Chicago is downwind from the plant.
“Our two states share both the benefits of this important resource and a responsibility to protect it,” the attorney general’s office said.
Wisconsin’s high court must decide whether regulators scrutinized the proposal adequately and weighed all alternatives. PSC officials said they reviewed thousands of pages of documents and issued an 882-page environmental impact statement.
Oak Creek already has four coal-fired boilers. Under the expansion project, two will be retired, and two more efficient new ones will be added, doubling the complex’s output.
Opponents argue that the utility is skirting tougher emissions standards for new plants by calling the new boilers an addition to an existing facility. They say it is essentially a new plant.
Fears about lake wildlife
Lawsuits are also pending in lower courts over air, water and construction permits, including the permit allowing the boilers to tap water from Lake Michigan through an 8,000-foot tunnel, then return it to the lake 15 degrees warmer.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raised serious concerns about possible harm to fish and other animal and plant life.
Similarly, S.C. Johnson & Son, the floor-wax company in neighboring Racine, hired University of Michigan water scientist David Jude to look into the project, and he concluded that the intake valve system, the hot water and construction would hurt the lake’s food chain.
“It’s probably going to kill all the aquatic life in some places,” Jude said.
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