Power Plant Project Causes Alarm
By Juliet Williams
Associated Press Writer
Published in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette on June
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.
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,
The Wisconsin Supreme Court is weighing the future of
the plant, which has come under legal challenge from environmentalists
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.
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
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
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
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
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raised serious concerns
about possible harm to fish and other animal and plant
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. "This is bigger
than any other power plant on the Great Lakes."
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
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.