We Energies Coal Plant Permit Renewal in Question
Should it switch from coal to natural gas?
How about an
aging coal plant that emitted all of those toxins but doesn’t have an
up-to-date air permit?
that coal plant disproportionately affects Downtown Milwaukee workers and the
state’s largest concentration of African-American, Hispanic and Asian
On Aug. 4,
the environmental groups Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club filed a suit
against the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for its failure to act
on We Energies’ request for a renewal of its air permit for its Valley Power
Plant, located on West Canal
Street, in the heart of the Menomonee Valley.
We Energies had submitted its request for a permit renewal on Feb. 20, 2008;
the DNR failed to issue or deny the request by the 18-month deadline of Aug.
and the environmental advocates, however, disagree on the practical implication
of the expired permit.
operating under the permit that’s existing,” said Brian Manthey, spokesman for
We Energies. He said that the plant is in compliance with all current air
Nekola, energy program director for Clean Wisconsin, disagrees.
permit currently,” Nekola said. “That’s the problem—there’s nothing in place.”
specialist Dan Schramm said the Valley plant’s previous permit is in effect,
and the DNR is reviewing the new application.
In the court
papers filed by Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club, the groups argued that the
permit is essential for monitoring the Valley plant’s compliance with the Clean
Yet the DNR
has not issued or denied the permit, or even released a draft permit for a
30-day public comment period, or sent a draft permit to the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) for its 45-day review. Both of those reviews must be
conducted prior to granting a final permit.
the Valley permit is not only already late, but it will be more than a year
late when it is finally issued or denied,” court papers note.
But the DNR
doesn’t have the final say on the permit—the EPA has a say in it, too, and
could reject it. In fact, on Aug. 17, the EPA rejected the DNR’s proposed
operating permit for the Edgewater Generating Station in Sheboygan, a coal plant owned by Alliant
Energy, because it failed to include important pollution control requirements.
This is the fourth coal plant operating permit in Wisconsin to be rejected by the EPA.
over the expired permit is part of a larger conflict over the value and
drawbacks of the 43-year-old coal-burning Valley plant, which provides
electricity and steam heat to Downtown Milwaukee.
coal plants in Oak Creek
and Pleasant Prairie have had their emissions controls upgraded. Its coal plant
in Port Washington was converted to natural
according to terms of a settlement with the EPA in 2006, We Energies wasn’t
required to upgrade the pollution controls at the Valley plant. We Energies’
Manthey said the other plants were upgraded because they’re larger and
upgrading them would reduce more emissions than upgrading the smaller Valley
plant. He said upgrades made in 2008 to the Valley plant would reduce nitrogen
oxide emissions by 50%.
environmental and civic groups contend that the Valley plant’s aging
infrastructure has had a disproportionate, adverse effect on Milwaukee’s minority residents.
In a joint
statement, Midwest Environmental Advocates, the Black Health Coalition of
Wisconsin and the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation argued that We Energies’ failure
to upgrade the Valley plant violates the Civil Rights Act and other federal
regulations because of environmental justice impacts. While We Energies has
made major changes to its coal plants in primarily white communities—Oak Creek, Pleasant Prairie and Port
Washington—its Valley plant, which is surrounded by minority
communities, hasn’t received the same attention.
that asthma, which is caused and exacerbated by air pollution, is far more
prevalent among blacks than whites and in southeastern Wisconsin.
“A number of
us have been troubled for some time by the condition of the Valley plant
spewing emissions essentially uncontrolled in the middle of the largest
population center of the state, and smack-dab in the middle of the state’s
largest low-income population center and the largest Hispanic population center
and African-American population center,” said Dennis Grzezinski, senior counsel
for Midwest Environmental Advocates. “Just looking at this pattern it seems to
us that there’s a problem here.”
coalition is asking the state Public Service Commission—as part of its current
review of utilities’ excess generating capacity—to force We Energies to retire,
replace or upgrade the Valley plant.
and others have suggested that the Valley plant switch from coal to natural
gas, which would markedly improve air quality in the heart of Milwaukee, allow for the removal of coal
piles near the Potawatomi Bingo Casino and the Great Lakes Water Institute, and
reduce carbon emissions.
is dramatically less carbon intensive than coal, so we’d be reducing our carbon
footprint,” Grzezinski said.
important because “retrofitting” old plants won’t reduce carbon emissions, said
Nekola of Clean Wisconsin.
with retrofitting these coal plants is that you can reduce sulfur dioxide and
nitrogen oxides and mercury, but it doesn’t do anything to reduce carbon,”
Nekola said. “There’s nothing you can put on a coal plant in Milwaukee that’s going to reduce carbon.
Carbon capturing sequestration is not currently viable in Wisconsin. So you can put scrubbers on, and
bag houses and mercury controls on, but you can’t do anything with carbon at
this point. Obviously, that’s a major concern.”
We Energies’ Manthey said the utility is currently studying the long-term future of the Valley plant, which could include a fuel switch or upgraded pollution controls. He said the Valley plant would have to comply with anticipated changes to federal air regulations that will call for dramatic reductions in emissions.