Mar. 28, 2005 – 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, Wisconsin.
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.
This plant will be among the first nationwide to take advantage of the change in the Clean Water Act.
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 plantâ€™s 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 countryâ€™s 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 countryâ€™s 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.
The controversy comes at a time of mounting discussion over environmental crisis and water depletion in the Great Lakes.
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 areaâ€™s air even dirtier.
"This will impact vulnerable populations â€“ 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 the proposal.
Native American tribes in Wisconsin and Michigan say the plan violates their tribal and treaty rights.
"We quickly determined that itâ€™s 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 here."
Representatives of We Energies did not return several calls for comment on this story. The companyâ€™s 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 Energiesâ€™ existing power plants produce about 5,600 MW."
The proposed construction is still in legal limbo. The state Supreme Court is considering We Energiesâ€™ appeal of a lower courtâ€™s ruling holding that the companyâ€™s general state permit application was void. The lower court cited the companyâ€™s 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 plantâ€™s 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 lakesâ€™ 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 regionsâ€™ economic growth.
Opponents of the Oak Creek power plant say the projectâ€™s 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 itâ€™s 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.
"Youâ€™re causing a large heat difference," said Albert Ettinger, a senior staff attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center. "So youâ€™ll see heat avoidance," Ettinger told TNS. "The fish arenâ€™t stupid; theyâ€™ll 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 wouldnâ€™t 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 itâ€™s a new plant. But because of minor word changes [in the Clean Water Act], itâ€™s defined as an existing facility and they want to go ahead and build it."