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Great Lakes Article:

Coal plant has some fired up
Environment vs. economy being considered
By Marla McMackin
Traverse City Record-Eagle
01/03/04


MANISTEE - Fred LaPoint doesn't want a new power plant in the city - not across from his house on Main Street and not on the shores of Manistee Lake.

"Years of industrial pollutants have stressed the lake's ecosystems," he said. "And they're talking about adding a huge amount of additional pollution."

LaPoint is referring to the Manistee Saltworks/Tondu Corporation's proposal to build a 425-megawatt, coal-burning power plant at the former General Chemical site on Main Street.

The city planning commission could decide Jan. 8 whether a special land use permit for Northern Lights is complete.

But City Manager Mitchell Deisch says the matter could be postponed until February.

LaPoint and other members of Citizens for Responsible Development say officials need to consider the environmental impact of a plant that would emit up to 4,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, 2,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and hundreds of pounds of mercury each year.

"There are a lot of issues," said LaPoint, a city firefighter. "And they're global issues with the contaminants."

Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide affect air quality; at high levels, they contribute to respiratory illnesses. The most problematic exposure to mercury, which is released as a gas from burning coal, can occur when it is served up in fish from polluted waters. Extreme cases can result in damage to the nervous system and kidney disease.

DEQ spokeswoman Patricia Spitzley said the heavy metal is a problem throughout western Michigan, including Manistee.

"It's traveling from other places," she said. "And coal-fired boilers are one of the largest sources."

In its gas form, mercury can travel along Lake Michigan, currently from industrial sites in Gary, Ind., and Chicago, before it is deposited in water ecosystems in its path.

Mike Murray, a scientist in the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation, said a 2002 study found rain in Traverse City contained mercury levels up to nine times higher than those considered safe for surface water. Levels in Manistee probably aren't much different, he added.

"We can't rely on the rain to clean up our water bodies because it's more concentrated," Murray said. "A new coal-fueled power plant is going to continue to add to the mercury burden."

Tondu spokeswoman Meagan Kempf would not comment specifically on emission levels, but said Northern Lights would meet all permit regulations necessary to operate.

The company first looked to build the facility in neighboring Filer Township, but officials there decided economic benefits did not outweigh environmental concerns.

And while Citizens for Responsible Development rally against the project, some officials, like Deisch, say it could be a boon.

Although the city actively marketed itself as a tourist destination and retirement resort in the '90s, Deisch said it might be time for a slight shift back to industry, which had dominated the scene for decades.
"There are pros and cons in every development," he said. "We have to wait and see whether or not it's going to be a net benefit."

Deisch said officials would look at economic and social ramifications, including what effect, if any, the plant would have on the city's image.
They will also consider the prospect of 60 new permanent jobs, which Kempf says would pay from $12.50 to $25 per hour.

The project also could generate up to $112 million in construction wages and an additional $10 to $12 million annually to the local economy, she added.

But LaPoint wonders if the economic benefits are worth the potential risks.

"We hear a lot of talk about jobs and dollars in the community," he said. "But at what cost?"

Another issue for project opponents is if the plant would be added to local tax rolls.

Kempf says 50 to 100 percent of the facility could be owned by municipalities. That would result in tax-exempt status, but wouldn't keep the company from contributing to the community.

"If the project is municipally owned, a community services fee will be negotiated and agreed upon with the proper officials," she said. "Regardless of ownership structure, either taxes or fees will be agreed upon prior to beginning construction."

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