Proposed Power Plant Challenges Great
Lakes Ecosystem, Sovereignty
Opponents Maneuver to Thwart New Coal-Burning Efforts
By Kari Lydersen
The New Standard
Published March 28th, 2005
Mar 28 - Picture the serene waters of Lake Michigan,
home to myriad plant and animal species; beloved by the
fishermen, nature lovers and others who live by its shores.
Then picture over a billion gallons of Lake Michigan water
a day being sucked through giant underwater screens into
a coal-burning power plant, part of the cooling system
for a new facility a company called We Energies intends
to build next to an existing coal-burning power plant
on the lakeshore about 20 miles southeast of Milwaukee,
The $2.15 billion facility, as described in permit applications,
would consume and circulate water for cooling before releasing
it back into the lake, 15 to 20 degrees warmer than before.
The water would be sucked in through two-dozen screens,
each 8 feet by 32, covering an intake tunnel extending
almost 8,000 feet off the shore.
The screens would catch and kill lake creatures, including
phytoplankton, zooplankton and larval fish. Other miniscule
forms of lake life would be inhaled through the screens
but killed during their scalding, high-pressure trip around
the plant. Still other species of fish and lake life could
die or have their life cycles significantly altered as
a result of the increase in water temperature.
The cooling system in question would not actually be
legal to build if the plant was considered a new facility.
Opponents say it clearly is a new facility, with intake
and discharge structures and energy generating equipment
all its own.
But under changes to section 316b of the Clean Water
Act made by the Bush administration last summer, the plant
is classified as an extension of the existing adjacent
facility and thus grandfathered in with now-illegal technology.
Like the proposed facility, the existing plant has an
"open" cooling system, which critics say puts
a strain on the lake but is not nearly as damaging as
the one currently proposed, since the existing system
is much smaller and located right on the shore, rather
than almost two miles into the water.
Members of the group Clean Wisconsin say this plant will
be among the first nationwide to take advantage of the
change in the Clean Water Act.
Along with the effects it would have on the lake and
lake creatures, environmentalists and public health groups
are deeply concerned about the proposed new plantís effect
on local air quality.
The plant would emit about 63.5 pounds of mercury a year,
most of it into the air through its smokestacks, according
to the permit application. Through rainfall along with
about 1.3 pounds per year emitted directly into the lake,
the mercury would become concentrated in the bodies of
Lake Michigan fish.
Coal-burning plants are the countryís largest source of
mercury emissions, according to the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA), as well as a significant cause of acid rain.
In March the Bush administration announced the countryís
first limits on mercury emissions, which environmentalists
have heavily criticized for not going far enough. The
limits are linked to an emission credit-trading program,
in which heavily polluting plants can keep polluting if
they buy "credits" from cleaner plants.
Mercury is a neurotoxin that has been linked to arrested
brain development in fetuses and children. Thus, the Environmental
Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration
have issued warnings against children and pregnant women
eating fish from mercury-laden bodies of water. Recently,
a Finnish study suggested a link between mercury and higher
heart disease risk in middle-aged men.
The proposed plant lies in one of the ten Wisconsin counties
not currently in compliance with the Clean Air Act. Opponents
point out that along with the mercury emissions, carbon
dioxide (CO2) and other emissions from the proposed plant
would make the areaís air even dirtier.
"This will impact vulnerable populations Ė children
playing outside, the elderly," said Katie Nekola,
the energy director of Clean Wisconsin, a nonprofit group
working on environmental issues in the state. "We
see a lot of asthma and other respiratory diseases here
already. This will make it worse," Nekola said in
an interview with The NewStandard.
"This is already a major environmental problem site
for the state," said Chip Brewer, government relations
director for SC Johnson, which produces Windex and other
common household products. "Why would you want to
add to it?"
Brewer noted that SC Johnson executives were originally
inclined to support the plant, since their local factories
require a large amount of electricity. But once they became
aware of the environmental and health effects of the plant,
he said, the Johnson family became major opponents of
"We quickly determined that itís a terrible idea,"
he said, adding that special conditions placed on industry
because of the "nonattainment" designation under
the Clean Air Act make it hard to attract other businesses
to the area.
"We need to clean up the air and reach attainment
[with the Clean Air Act]," he said. "This plant
will only exacerbate some serious economic issues we have
Representatives of We Energies did not return several
calls for comment on this story. The companyís website
notes that electric energy use statewide has been growing
two to three percent per year. "By 2016, the state
is expected to require an additional 7,000 MW [megawatts],"
the site reads. "We Energiesí existing power plants
produce about 5,600 MW."
The proposed construction is still in legal limbo. The
state Supreme Court is considering We Energiesí appeal
of a lower courtís ruling holding that the companyís general
state permit application was void. The lower court cited
the companyís failure to present viable alternative sites
or projects as required, and said We Energies did not
address a state energy priorities law designating high
sulfur coal as an undesirable source of energy.
The state Department of Natural Resources has granted
the air permit, but opponents recently filed litigation
opposing the public process that led to that approval.
The Department has yet to grant a water permit, and opponents
say if it does they would likely challenge that move,
too. The Army Corps of Engineers would also still need
to issue permits for construction on the lake bed; Illinois
Attorney General Lisa Madigan and others have asked the
Corps to conduct further environmental impact studies
before allowing construction to begin.
The controversy over the Oak Creek plant comes at a time
of mounting discussion over environmental crisis and water
depletion in the Great Lakes, as well as joint state efforts
to protect the lakes.
Critics of the proposed power plant say it directly contradicts
these clean-up efforts.
While the state of Wisconsin holds the authority to grant
approvals needed for the power plantís construction, it
lies within this increasingly debated area of control
since it affects the Great Lakes. On December 4, 2004,
the governors of eight Great Lakes states, including Wisconsin,
joined tribal leaders in signing the Great Lakes Declaration
of Regional Collaboration, agreeing to work together to
preserve the lakesí water integrity and health.
In July 2004, the Council of Great Lakes Governors released
a tentative implementation plan for a program called the
Great Lakes Charter Annex Agreement, which would strictly
limit diversion of Great Lakes water. Business and industry
groups, including General Motors Corp. and Eastman Kodak
Co., protested the agreement, saying Great Lakes water
usage remains necessary to various regionsí economic growth.
Opponents of the Oak Creek power plant say the projectís
approval would directly contradict the spirit of the Collaboration
agreement and negotiations to preserve the Great Lakes.
"The ink was hardly dry on the Collaboration when
they went ahead and did this," said Mike Ripley,
environmental coordinator for the Chippewa Ottawa Resource
Authority (CORA), an association of five Native American
tribes in Michigan. "They had this big celebration
for the signing with bagpipes and everything. It was quite
a show. Then they turn around and itís business as usual.
It makes you cynical."
Native American tribes in Wisconsin and Michigan say
the plan violates their tribal and treaty rights, including
the 1836 treaty which gave them fishing rights covering
two thirds of Lake Michigan, within about 50 miles of
the proposed power plant. A federal consent decree signed
in 2000 mandated that the government protect and maintain
a healthy fishing environment in these areas.
Peter Howe, a fish biologist, submitted written testimony
detailing the extensive effects the plant could have on
fish and other lake life. "It was estimated that
all plankton in a 150-square-mile section near shore [in]
Lake Michigan would be lost in a seven-month period,"
he wrote. Howe, who stressed he was speaking as a private
individual, not an EPA representative, added, "The
screens can be viewed as cilia collecting all plankton
in a 550-foot section of the lake on a continuous basis
throughout the year, processing the plankton and depositing
its fecal matter (undigested) next to shore."
In August, EPA officials reprimanded Howe for circulating
his comments about the proposal, which included calling
a permit granted by the Department of Natural Resources
(DNR) "a sham."
Biologists and environmentalists argue that the effect
on fish and the larger lake ecosystem would be complex,
possibly irreversible and could not be fully measured
or predicted in advance.
"Youíre causing a large heat difference," said
Albert Ettinger, a senior staff attorney at the Environmental
Law & Policy Center. "So youíll see heat avoidance,"
Ettinger told TNS. "The fish arenít stupid; theyíll
leave. And in winter you might also see heat attraction,
which could cause a massive fish kill if the heat was
shut down for some reason."
Ettinger wrote a letter to the DNR opposing the water
permits, noting that "run off from coal storage areas
may add significant pollution to Lake Michigan, including
bioaccumulative chemicals of concern."
His letter continued, "Nothing is said in the [power
plant proposal] as to any treatment for discharges other
than limiting their frequency, although it is known that
coal piles frequently contain mercury, cadmium, arsenic
and other highly toxic substances."
Opponents emphasize that people around the country should
be watching what happens with the Oak Creek plant, because
its use of the Clean Water Act rule change could signal
things to come in other areas.
"This wouldnít be allowed for a new plant anywhere
in the country," said Eric Uram of the Sierra Club.
"Scientists who have looked thoroughly at the design
say that in every sense itís a new plant. But because
of minor word changes [in the Clean Water Act], itís defined
as an existing facility and they want to go ahead and