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Blackouts, bad air days and NIMBYs

Donald Croysdale

Last week’s pictures of New York must have been the ultimate rush for the opponents   to electrical generation expansion, interchange reconstruction and freeway expansion.   The inability of cars to move anywhere had to be a real-time preview of the   dreams of what Milwaukee could be — if we could only tear down the freeways,   downsize the Marquette Interchange and keep Interstate 94 at three lanes each   way. The photos of millions of New Yorkers walking home and some back to work   must have been a dream come true for our good city mayor. Surely those millions   of stranded New Yorkers are lining up to sell their cars and rent a flat in   the Big Apple.


Milwaukee and Wisconsin dodged a bullet. Few people had known that the electrical   transmission systems across this country are so intertwined and so fragile.


Forgotten were the blackouts that occurred in Chicago in 1999, but fortunately   We Energies had not. Its Power the Future project was, in part, in reaction   to Chicago’s blackouts and in anticipation of future electrical needs for southeastern   Wisconsin for decades to come.


Environmentalists, NIMBYs quiet


As a good chunk of the eastern United States and Canada coped with no power   and having to boil water, the silence of the environmentalists and the NIMBYs   was deafening. It’s rather easy to shout about bad air days, even though such   occurrences are rare and seldom, if ever, unhealthy. With the backing of onerous   and largely ineffectual Environmental Protection Agency regulations, the ozone   zealots and NIMBYs have attempted to block reasonable expansion of electrical   infrastructure. The last nuclear power plant – still the safest and cleanest   energy generation we have ever had – was built more than a quarter of a century   ago. Wisconsin, as I recall, even passed a law prohibiting new nuclear power   plant construction. Electrical transmission lines have been attacked by NIMBYs   wherever they are proposed. In spite of a 30 percent growth in electricity demand,   transmission-line growth has been less than half that. And as we witnessed last   week, the lines we do have are old and subject to failure. This is one reason   Power the Future includes more than $2 billion of new transmission-line construction.  


The NIMBYs have been silent for a few days as the eastern half of the United   States sorts things out. Little known from the general media is that the Ohio-based   utility First Energy Corp. has been a target of the environmentalists even though it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading pollution controls for its facilities.


On Aug. 7, just a week before the blackouts, a court ruled that its pollution-control upgrades were not enough. This utility spent hundreds of millions making its facilities safer and cleaner and millions more fighting the inevitable lawsuits that whatever it did was not good enough. A week after it lost in court, 50 million people were caught in a blackout. Coincidence? Probably. Could the   same thing happen here? Let’s hope not; but let’s also hope the Public Service Commission gives a quick yes to Power the Future.


‘Bad air days’ few and far between


It’s worth noting how infrequent southeastern Wisconsin has “bad air days.”   In the three years before our Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources started   issuing Ozone Action Day alerts, 1992-1994, there were just seven bad air days,   or an average of 2.3 days a year. On four of those seven days, only one of 12   ozone monitoring sites recorded “bad air” and then only for an hour   or so. Since 1995, the DNR has issued 76 ozone alerts. But what is not generally   known is that on only 12 of those days was the DNR rewarded with bad air. Even   counting a couple of bad air days the DNR failed to alert, the average number   of bad air days from 1995 to 2003 was 2.3 days a year — exactly the same as   for the three years prior to the DNR regulations (reformulated gas, emissions   testing, etc) that were implemented.


In other words, our area rarely incurs what the EPA and our DNR (not to mention,   the American Lung Association) claim to be bad air. Even when such readings   do occur, they occur very briefly — an hour or so — and along the Lake Michigan   beach. Waukesha County, our fastest-growing county, has not had even one bad   air day. Washington County has had one (June 16, 1994.)


We hope last week’s blackouts will help put our energy expansion options into   perspective. The endless wrangling about oil vs. coal is an environmental nonissue. Our area rarely has bad air, and to the extent we do, the ozone drifts in from   Lake Michigan and has had nothing whatsoever to do with the type of facility   We Energies is planning to build.


Of far greater concern is moving forward with a comprehensive program to expand   power generation and to upgrade and expand transmission grids. Like it or not,   the growth of electrical usage continues, and availability and reliability of   electricity impacts the health of everyone to a far greater extent than we had   realized, including but not limited to safe drinking water, toilets and sanitary   facilities, safe indoor temperatures, food storage and at-home medical care.  


In the larger picture, allowing companies to make a fair return to maintain   and expand power generation is crucial to our health and well being. The shouting   of the environmentalists and NIMBYs about virtually nonexistent bad air pales   in relevance. It’s too much to hope for, but wouldn’t it be nice if the NIMBY   silence continued for awhile? Now that is something that would really clean   our air.


Donald Croysdale is executive director for the American Subcontractors Association of Greater Milwaukee. For more information on ASA or its next chapter event, call the Greater Milwaukee Chapter at 414-276-1743 or visit the Web   site.

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