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Great Lakes Article:

DNR grants air permit for planned Oak Creek coal plants
By Thomas Content
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The state Department of Natural Resources has granted an air emissions permit to Milwaukee-based We Energies for its $2.15 billion project to build new coal plants in Oak Creek.

The DNR approval, announced Thursday, came despite objections raised by environmental groups and local residents during a November hearing.

Marc Looze, clean air campaign director at Clean Wisconsin, the group formerly known as Wisconsin's Environmental Decade, said the group was still reviewing the 148-page permit and had not decided whether to challenge it in court.

The permit is one of several needed by the utility in order to begin construction on two new coal-fired boilers at its Oak Creek power plant.

During hearings, environmentalists criticized We Energies for proposing the new coal plants in one of the most polluted areas of Wisconsin.

In addition, new procedures in Illinois and New Mexico have suggested that the DNR could have used a more stringent standard by requiring the utility to build a coal plant using a process known as coal gasification.

Gasification converts coal into natural gas and generates much fewer pollutants than conventional coal-burning power plants. But the state Public Service Commission in November rejected one gasification plant as too expensive, contending the technology is too untested at the scale proposed by the utility.

The DNR permit gives the utility approval to build three new coal boilers, two using conventional technology plus the gasification plant rejected by the PSC.

"It's important to note that even with the third unit we would still meet air quality standards," utility spokesman Thad Nation said.

Eric Uram of the Sierra Club noted that the permit would allow the utility to add thousands of tons of pollutants into the air in an area already in violation of federal clean-air standards.

We Energies hopes to begin construction of the Oak Creek project late this year or early next year, but the project still must receive other environmental permits - including a water permit for an intake pipe that would more than double the amount of water the Oak Creek coal plant withdraws daily from Lake Michigan.

If a court case is filed over the air quality permit, that would become the third issue to end up in court relating to the utility's power plant expansion plan.

Clean Wisconsin, along with S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. of Racine, has already challenged the approval of the coal plants by the state Public Service Commission. That case, along with suits filed by the City of Oak Creek, Town of Caledonia and Calpine Corp. of San Jose, Calif., have been consolidated and will be decided in Dane County Circuit Court, said Pamela McGillivray, a Clean Wisconsin lawyer.

In addition, Clean Wisconsin, the Sierra Club and the Wisconsin Citizens' Utility Board have filed objections in federal court in Milwaukee to an agreement the Milwaukee-based utility signed last year with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

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