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Michigan Utility To Reduce Emissions From Its Coal Burning Plants As Part of Federal Settlement

The Michigan utility Consumers Energy agreed to a proposed settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Justice Department to reduce emission including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter at its coal-fired plants, which were found to exceed allowable levels under the Clean Air Act.

Consumers Energy Coal Fired Power Plant near Bay City, Michigan. Photo courtesy of MLive Media Group.

The agreement will affect the company’s five Michigan coal-fired plants located in West Olive, Essexville, Muskegon, and Luna Pier. Each plant has several coal burning operating units, comprising a total of 12 units for the company as a whole.

As part of the agreement, the company said that it will shut down its seven oldest coal-fired units. These will encompass three units at the J.R. Whiting Generating Complex near Luna Pier; two at the B.C Cobb Generating Plant in Muskegon; and two at the Karn/Weadock Generating Complex near Bay City bordering Essexville.

Consumers Energy said that, “These units will comply with new interim emissions limits until their retirement in April 2016.” In the meantime the settlement agreement will require the company to continue operating existing pollution controls as well as install new pollution control technologies onto these and all of the remaining units to meet current Clean Air Act emissions standards.

The EPA says that sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide are the two predominant pollutants emitted from the power plants. The agency adds that these pollutants can be converted into fine particulate matter once in the air, which can then be “breathed in and lodged deep in the lungs, leading to a variety of health problems and even premature death.”

The EPA explains that high concentrations of sulfur dioxide can effect breathing and aggravate existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Those most at risk include asthmatics, individuals with bronchitis or emphysema, children, and the elderly. Sulfur dioxide is also a primary contributor to acid rain.

Nitrogen oxide is also a contributor to acid rain deteriorating water quality, as well as contributing to ground-level ozone (smog) and global warming. The EPA adds that children, people with lung problems such as asthma, and people who either work or exercise outside are also susceptible to adverse effects such as lung tissue damage.

As part of the settlement requirements to lower emissions, Consumers Energy says it plans to spend up to $4 million on the development and installation of renewable energy projects including anaerobic digestion, wind, and solar.

While the wind and solar projects are self-explanatory, the EPA explains that anaerobic digestion is a process where microorganisms break down organic materials in the absence of oxygen. As part of the process, biogas (made primarily of methane and carbon dioxide) can be used as an energy source similar to natural gas.

The EPA adds that the company will also be required to “spend no less than $1 million and up to $2 million” to sponsor a wood-burning equipment replacement and/or retrofit project that would be implemented by a pollution control agency or by a third-party non-profit organization.

The agency says that this project will replace or retrofit inefficient, higher-polluting wood-burning or coal equipment with cleaner-burning, more energy-efficient heating equipment and technologies.

Consumers Energy also says that it will be lowering emissions from its vehicles. The company plans to spend up to $3 million to either replace or retrofit its gas and diesel-powered fleet.

These changes will include replacing gas and diesel-powered vehicles with alternative fuel or compressed natural gas, as well as retrofitting fleet vehicles with engines designed to reduce emissions. The company also says that it plans to build “one or more charging stations for electric or compressed natural gas vehicles.

The EPA says that it “expects that the actions required by the settlement will reduce harmful emissions by over 46,500 tons per year, which includes approximately 38,400 tons per year of sulfur dioxide and 8,100 tons per year of nitrogen oxide.”

The EPA adds that the settlement will also require the company to “pay a civil penalty of $2.75 million to resolve the Clean Air Act violations and spend at least $7.7 million on environmental projects to help mitigate the harmful effects of air pollution on the environment and benefit the local community.”

Consumers Energy gave the preliminary breakdown of the environmental and community projects that it plans to implement and complete within the next five years. The spending will include:

  • Up to $2 million for the acquisition, donation, and restoration of ecologically significant lands, watersheds, vegetation and forests in or near the company’s service territory.
  • A $500,000 payment to the National Park Service for restoration efforts at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Park in Leelanau County in northern Michigan and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.
  • Up to $500,000 on energy efficiency projects for low income residents and/or public schools to reduce or eliminate emissions.

The proposed settlement was lodged last week in the Eastern District Court of Michigan and is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval. Information on submitting comments is available at the Dept. of Justice.

Consumers Energy is Michigan’s largest utility and provides natural gas and electricity to an estimated 6.5 million residents in the state’s 68 Lower Peninsula counties. The company is the principal subsidiary of CMS Energy.

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