State environmental regulators have given We Energies’ proposed power plant in Oak Creek a preliminary clean bill of health, a diagnosis opposition groups will likely dispute.
Earlier this month, the state Department of Natural Resources issued a draft air-quality permit for the $4.3 billion, 1,800-megawatt coal-fired facility. The report paints the project in a favorable light, asserting that the Milwaukee-based utility’s pollution-control devices will ensure the plant meets DNR standards.
“(We Energies) has demonstrated to the satisfaction of the department that the project will have a net environmental benefit to the existing nonattainment area,” according to the report.
The air permit is only a draft, and the DNR is fielding public comments that could counterbalance its findings before it issues a final statement. The agency has also scheduled a public hearing on Oct. 28 in Oak Creek.
The state Public Service Commission, which primarily regulates the business side of public utilities, is scheduled to rule on the Oak Creek plant on Nov. 10. The written comment period for the air-quality permit extends until Nov. 9, so it’s possible the DNR might not issue a final air permit until after Nov. 10, depending on the volume of public comments, said Lauren Hambrook, the DNR’s project manager for the Oak Creek proposal.
Responsible Energy for Southeastern Wisconsin’s Tommorrow, a grassroots group that advocates a natural gas alternative to We Energies’ Oak Creek plan, is among those who will likely take exception to the DNR’s draft report. Steve Bulik of Citizens for Responsible Power, a RESET member, said some aspects of the air modeling that underlie the DNR report are faulty.
Difference of opinion
In particular, Bulik said the draft report failed to account adequately for the smallest particulate matter the Oak Creek plant will emit, and RESET is prepared to testify that these emissions would fall short of national standards.
“That’s a concern,” he said.
Bulik also predicted that RESET will show that mercury emission levels would be higher than what We Energies has claimed in public statements.
John Thompson, advocacy coordinator for the Clean Air Taskforce, another RESET member, said the Oak Creek’s facility will emit a level of sulfur equivalent to older coal plants already in operation. The plant’s technology, he said, won’t be as clean as it’s been billed.
“There are the claims We Energies has made about this plant, and then there’s the reality of the technology,” Thompson said. “Right now, it’s in DNR’s hands, and we’ll see how they to respond to public comments.”
The Department of Natural Resources will hold a public hearing on an air-quality permit for We Energies on Oct. 28.
Thad Nation, spokesman for We Energies, said he expects a “healthy level of debate” at next week’s hearing. In the meantime, he said the utility is pleased that the DNR’s draft report is consistent with We Energies’ refrain that the Oak Creek plant will employ advanced pollution-control technology.
“We’re encouraged that the DNR is reaffirming what we’ve said,” Nation said. “We’ll be meeting or exceeding strict environmental standards.”
Hambrook also cautioned observers that a DNR air-quality permit “doesn’t mean that there’s no pollution” produced by the facility, only that the pollution levels meet DNR and federal guidelines.
If the DNR fails to issue a final air-quality permit before Nov. 10, it’s possible that would force a delay in PSC approval, Hambrook said. On the other hand, the PSC could issue a go-ahead for the facility contingent upon final air-quality permit from the DNR.
If the DNR issues a final permit, We Energies or a third party could file an appeal within 30 days, Hambrook said.
Jeremy Harrell can be reached at 608-260-8570 or by email.