The DTE coal-fired power plant is shown in Monroe, Mich., Thursday, March 10, 2011. A Michigan utility spent $65 million last year replacing key parts at the state’s largest coal-fired power plant in Monroe. Now DTE Energy is in court with federal regulators who say millions more should have been spent to reduce air pollution. The case against DTE Energy isn’t an isolated one. The government is aggressively suing electric utilities across the Midwest to get them to install the latest technology to capture smog-causing emissions. (AP Photo)
Mich. (AP) — A Michigan utility spent $65 million last year replacing
key parts at the state’s largest coal-fired power plant. When regulators
found out, they hauled the company into court for what it didn’t do:
Spend millions more at the same time to greatly eliminate air pollution.
fight with DTE Energy isn’t an isolated one. The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency and the Justice Department are aggressively suing
electric utilities across the Midwest to get them to install the latest
technology to capture smog-causing emissions.
legal action is the latest shot in a decades-long conflict over
bringing the utilities in line with the Clean Air Act. When Congress
passed tougher standards in 1977, it allowed the industry to wait until
older plants underwent a major overhaul before acquiring new
anti-pollution equipment. The idea was that upgrades would be made
more than three decades later, about half of U.S. coal-fired units —
roughly 600 — lack advanced controls, EPA says. And years have been
consumed in clashes among utilities, regulators and environmental groups
over exactly what constitutes an overhaul and what is merely
people in Michigan and three other Midwestern states, court battles
over pollution equipment could make a difference in the purity of air
they breathe and the cost of electricity they use. The DTE case is set
for trial this fall.
you’re seeing is EPA’s renewed vigor in enforcement of the Clean Air
Act,” said Cynthia Giles, an EPA assistant administrator. “The controls
we’re seeking to make companies install cost money. There are reasons
for the industry to be pushing back. It’s our job to insist on
January, the EPA also sued utilities in Pennsylvania and Missouri. A
case involving six coal-burning plants in Illinois is also pending.
Meanwhile, there have been at least seven settlements since 2009 in
Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Kansas, with remedies ranging from cleaner
fuel to millions of dollars in fines and pollution controls
EPA lawyer Eric Schaeffer, director of the Washington-based
Environmental Integrity Project, said legal action has been “pretty
consistent” since the final years of the Bush administration, partly
reflecting the government’s impatience with the upgrade process. “The
big settlements take many years to land,” he said.
The EPA alleges that utilities are putting their customers in “grave” danger by resisting change.
Piles of coal are shown at NRG Energy’s W.A. Parish Electric Generating Station Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Thompsons, Texas. The plant, which operates natural gas and coal-fired units, is one of the largest power plants in the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin regulating mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants for the first time, the latest in a string of new regulations that has Republicans bent on reining in the federal body. The new rules will have the greatest impact on Texas, home to more coal-fired power plants than any other state. (AP Photo)
pollutants cause harm to human health and the environment once emitted
into the air, including premature death, heart attacks, and respiratory
problems,” the EPA said in federal court in Detroit.
which provides electricity and natural gas to more than 3 million
Michigan homes and businesses, says it has significantly reduced
pollution at the Monroe plant and will complete more air-quality
improvements by 2014.
deepest recession Michigan has seen since the Great Depression is not
the time for EPA to increase ratepayer costs,” said DTE attorney F.
William Brownell, noting that any fix would not be quick and would cost
at least $156 million, plus millions more in annual operating expenses.
“It’s not feasible to expedite the installation of these controls,” Brownell said in a court filing in November.
Monroe plant, 40 miles south of Detroit on Lake Erie, is the workhorse
of the company’s coal-fired fleet. Unit 2, one of four here and the
target of the lawsuit, alone is capable of providing power for more than
100,000 homes and businesses.
is an essential ingredient. It is burned to heat water, which becomes
steam. The steam then turns turbines to make electricity.
coal, of course, is dirty. Monroe Unit 2 released 27,230 tons of sulfur
dioxide and 8,205 tons of nitrogen oxide in 2009 — tops in Michigan,
according to the EPA, and an undisputed source of air pollution.
year ago, DTE turned off Unit 2 for three months to replace boiler
parts and improve the plant’s efficiency. The EPA said it knew nothing
about the project until it read a story in The Monroe Evening News,
headlined: “Extreme Makeover: Power Plant Edition,” which described the
work and its benefit to the local economy.
utility has insisted it was nothing more than “routine maintenance”
that is standard in the industry. The EPA, however, said it was a
modification that easily required state-of-the-art technology to
eliminate virtually all emissions at a plant open since the 1970s.
those emissions would be the equivalent of taking 371,000 heavy-duty
trucks and 1 million passenger cars off the road, said Lyle Chinkin, an
air-quality expert and president of Sonoma Technology in Petaluma,
bolster its case, the government turned to Joel Schwartz, an expert at
the Harvard School of Public Health, who predicts there will be 90 to
100 premature deaths a year among people exposed to pollution from the
Monroe plant. DTE dismisses those as “alarmist assertions.”
the case moves through court, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman has
told the utility it can keep Unit 2 operating at or below the level that
existed before last year’s project.
spokesman John Austerberry said what gets lost is the company’s
decade-long accomplishment of making other parts of the Monroe power
plant cleaner. “It’s not like changing a muffler on a car,” he said.
“These are huge construction projects. It takes years to complete.”
SOURCE: The Associated Press