Wisconsin Power Plant Is Called A Setback for the Environment

A Wisconsin energy company is battling environmentalists to double the size of the Oak Creek power station on Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Chicago.
A Wisconsin energy company is battling environmentalists to double the size of the Oak Creek power station on Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Chicago. (By Peter Slevin -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 29, 2005

RACINE, Wis. -- The tall towers of a coal-fired power plant on the shores of Lake Michigan represent a new front in a national struggle over energy technology and the environmental performance of expanding energy companies.

So far, in the view of environmental activists, water and air quality are being cheated.

The battle here concerns a proposal to double the capacity of the Oak Creek power plant, located south of Milwaukee. Opponents say the new twin 600-megawatt generators would use unacceptably old technology, spilling excessive pollution into the air and disturbing aquatic life by sucking billions of gallons of lake water each week into its cooling pipes.

The Oak Creek project could have implications for dozens of future coal-powered plants across the country, according to advocates and legal analysts. If energy companies find they can use older, less expensive designs without government objection, critics say they will be less likely to invest in more healthful and environmentally friendly technology.

"This will be the seventh-largest power plant in the country in an area that already violates federal air quality standards. They will be burning the dirtiest type of fuel and using the dirtiest type of combustion technology," said Bruce Nilles, senior Midwest representative of the Sierra Club. "EPA sat on their hands and did nothing."

"The stakes are huge," said Jennifer Giegerich, director of the Wisconsin office of the Public Interest Research Group. "Wisconsin is on the front end of a lot of major energy stations. What kind of new generation are we going to bring on-line? Is it going to be coal? It's a big issue in terms of who gets to decide."

A coalition of environmental and health groups and local businesses is demanding better from the plant owner, Wisconsin Electric Power Co. Yet their larger complaint is with state and federal authorities, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency, which they contend are weakening decades-old air and water standards.

In a series of lawsuits, opponents are challenging the decision making on Oak Creek. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan took the unusual step of opposing the project in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She has called the proposal "an outdated, environmentally destructive plant design that Illinois has banned for more than 30 years."

Regulatory agencies and Wisconsin Electric insist they played by the rules. Charlene J. Denys, chief of the EPA's safe drinking water branch in Chicago, said opponents "aren't fundamentally happy with the regulatory requirements or have other interpretations."

"This plant is very important to ensure affordable energy that our customers need for the future," Oak Creek spokesman Thad Nation said. "This is the best available proven technology on the market today. This is not the coal plants that were being built 30 and 40 years ago. These are substantially better-performing."

Wisconsin Electric, better known as We Energies, operates the 51-year-old Oak Creek site and sought five years ago to add 1,800 megawatts in three generators. Two would use traditional pulverized coal, while the third would employ an integrated gasified coal process that burns more efficiently and allows the capture of dangerous substances before they enter the environment.

In 2003, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission supported the two pulverized-coal units, but objected to the gasification structure -- proposed for a site some distance from the existing plant -- as "not cost effective." According to Nation, the company believes "coal gasification is the future," yet considers the method unproven because no large plants have been built and tested.

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