On Tuesday, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) held a public informational meeting in Holland as part of their process in determining whether or not to grant the Holland Board of Public Works (HBPW) permission to build a new coal fueled powered plant.
The meeting was not to provide an opportunity for people to take a public position on the issue, rather it was designed to provide information based on the MDEQ research and provide an opportunity for the public to ask questions. There will be public hearings on the proposed Holland plant on January 12 & 13.
The evening began with several MDEQ staff presenting information based upon research they conducted after receiving the permit request from the HBPW. Some of the information they presented detailed the permit process and conditions, in addition to a health and environmental safety summary. One of the issues that were addressed were the estimated mercury and lead levels that the proposed power plant would emit. The MDEQ concluded, “these levels would not significantly affect children’s health in this community.” Much of the information that was shared by the MDEQ staff was technical and can be found online, but even that information is difficult to follow unless you have some prior knowledge of the issue.
Roughly 50 people attended the meeting and asked nearly 70 questions. People could address the DEQ directly at a microphone or write down questions that would be submitted to the staff. The MDEQ did go over the allotted four hours in order to respond to every question that was submitted.
Many of the questions that were asked dealt with health and environmental issues, such as mercury levels and CO2 emissions. Those addressing these issues were concerned about the impact on the health of children and senior citizens as well as what impact the CO2 emissions would have on climate change. In response, the MDEQ staff quite often said that they did not know for sure what the risks would be or that, in the case of CO2 emissions, wasn’t relevant to their decision to grant the permit since their was no current state regulation on CO2 emissions.
At one point the Mayor of Holland showed up and asked, “What is the track record of the HBPW with the MDEQ field office in Grand Rapids as it relates to compliance?” The MDEQ said that there was “continually compliance.” The Holland Mayor promptly left after asking this question. One questioner asked if a lawsuit filed the day before by the Sierra Club would have any bearing on the DEQ decision. The MDEQ responded by saying the lawsuit is independent of their decision making process.
Other questions addressed whether or not the MDEQ was considering the cumulative affect of the pollution that would be generated if all the proposed coal fueled power plants in Michigan were built. The MDEQ responded that they are not required to consider the cumulative affect of all the proposed power plants and would not speculate since none of them have yet to be built.
Another person asked if the ” power plant has to demonstrate a need for the expansion?” The MDEQ said that it was immaterial to their decision, they only make decisions about compliance and that “the amount or size of the power plant is up to the company to decide.”
A Holland resident asked if environmental justice issues were being considered in the permit process. “Not at this time, but the Governor’s office is putting together a group to deal with this issue,” said a MDEQ spokesperson. This question was similar to one asked about the relationship between the Native American tribes in Michigan and the MDEQ. The MDEQ stated that the Environmental Protection Agency already has a relationship with Native tribes living in Michigan and has offered to host informational meetings with them. Another questioner asked if the MDEQ considers the environmental and health impact of the coal that is mined and transported to Michigan for the proposed coal fueled power plants. Like most of the answers given by the MDEQ at this meeting, they responded that this was not part of state policy for assessing whether or not a company should be granted a permit.
In speaking to a Sierra Club volunteer after the meeting, they stated that there are huge holes in the MDEQ process for granting permits on such a critical issue. “Until CO2 emissions and other environmental and health issues are included their process will be extremely inadequate.”
A staff person with the Sierra Club also pointed out that a representative from Consumers Power was in the room to monitor process and gather information in preparation for their coal fueled power plant request. MediaMouse.org asked the Consumers Energy person if that is why they attended and they declined to respond.
In addition to the January public hearings in Holland, the public can submit comments to the MDEQ online before January 30th.
The Clean Energy Now effort also has an online letter writing campaign to send a clear message to the MDEQ that “stopping the coal fueled power plants that are being proposed is critical to protecting our lakes, reducing global warming emissions, lowering mercury levels in fish, improving our air quality, and protecting our health.”