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 She has called the proposal "an outdated, environmentally destructive plant design that Illinois has banned for more than 30 years."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.
Opponents of the two surviving units coalesced around several arguments. They worried about the effects the powerful generators, due on-line in 2009-10, would have on the environment. And they complained about the way the project won state and federal approval.
The Oak Creek additions would add to air pollution and disrupt the aquatic ecosystem in Lake Michigan, the critics argued. New employers already have turned away from southeastern Wisconsin because of air quality problems and the resulting regulatory restrictions, according to opponents who argued that the new units would make things worse.
In her friend-of-the-court brief, Madigan said the proposed project would deposit 1 1/2 pounds of mercury a year into the lake and as much as 120 pounds into the atmosphere at a time when Wisconsin and Illinois waters are subject to an advisory against eating too much predatory fish. A Harvard School of Public Health survey warned that three-fourths of the burden of air pollution would fall on Illinois and other states beyond Wisconsin.
Madigan and environmental groups accused Wisconsin authorities of paying too little attention to alternatives, including the possibility of substituting gasified coal units for the two units that won approval. She also criticized Wisconsin for allowing a system called "once-through cooling," which is banned in Illinois and Indiana.
The giant electricity generators at Oak Creek would be cooled by 2.2 billion gallons of cold water sucked each day through 20 intake pipes implanted 1½ miles from the shore in Lake Michigan. The warmed water would then be returned to the lake after passing through the heated plant.
Environmental scientists contend that incalculable numbers of fish and microorganisms would die, harming the ecology of the lake. The EPA declined last year to require closed cooling towers for large plants nationwide, citing the increased expense.
Nation, the We Energies spokesman, said replacing the Oak Creek system with closed cooling towers would require a larger plant at greater expense and would mean a loss of 40 million gallons of water a day through condensation. The cost, many environmental groups believe, would be worth the benefit.
Perhaps the most contentious aspect of the Oak Creek challenge is the set of rules that governs the plant's design.
Opponents argue that the facility should be considered new and should not benefit from the looser environmental standards permitted for upgrades of older power stations. The EPA and its Wisconsin counterpart disagreed.
"They are building a whole new plant and a new intake and discharge structure, and the volume will be much higher. For them to argue this is an existing facility just boggles the mind," said Chip Brewer, director of government relations for S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., the large Racine-based manufacturer of such products as Windex, Edge, OFF! and Ziploc bags.
Opponents point to language inserted last year into the preamble of the Clean Water Act. The wording appears to benefit We Energies, they said, by expanding the definition of what is considered an existing plant.
In an internal EPA e-mail last year, Peter Howe, a life scientist in the agency's Chicago office, said it was "unequivocal that prior to the language change that this was a New Facility." A supervisor later warned Howe that his memo on the project was "the pre-mature opinion of a zealous staff member."
EPA water division official Ephraim King in Washington said the measure was open for public comment. He said he has no reason to believe that We Energies influenced the wording.
"This rule is not basically tied to or predicated upon any single facility. It's based on a careful and balanced examination of all the comments that we've received," said King, director of the office of science and technology. He added that the regulation is "making important environmental progress."
Columbia University attorney Reed Super, who is leading a legal challenge to federal clean water practice, called Oak Creek "the poster child of the worst that can happen" under the Bush administration's approach to the Clean Water Act. Environmentalists want authorities to enforce the pledge in 1970s laws to use the best available technology to minimize environmental impact.
Such critics believe that when Wisconsin gave its approval, the EPA should have stepped in to require a more environmentally friendly solution.
In a setback to We Energies, a Dane County judge late last year revoked the Public Service Commission's approval, ruling that the power company did not offer sufficient alternatives to its Oak Creek site. That is the case on appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is expected to rule by the end of June.
If the court rules in the company's favor, Nation said, We Energies hopes to break ground within two months. The Sierra Club's Nilles says not so fast.
"Even if the Supreme Court rules against us," Nilles said, "the fight is very, very far from over."
Staff writer Kari Lydersen in Chicago contributed to this report.