Environmental groups question regulation air emissions
Published November 1, 2013
METRO DETROIT — In efforts to reduce mercury emissions in Michigan and see the federal Mercury Air Toxic Standards implemented in 2015, state environmental agencies and conservation groups said they are lobbying for energy companies to drop litigations and for Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to take a closer look at the possible new air emission regulations for toxic compounds.
Mercury, a naturally occurring metal containing neurotoxic properties, is dangerous for humans and wildlife, as the atmospheric emissions can be deposited to land and bodies of water by either attaching to precipitation or by mercury gas landing on surfaces, according to the National Resources Defense Council. The Environmental Protection Agency stated that power plants are the largest emitters of mercury, as they account for at least 50 percent.
Environmental and conservation agencies like the EPA, Moms Clean Air Force, Clean Water Action and the National Wildlife Federation have lobbied for a reduction in mercury emissions since the 1990s, and Feb. 16, 2012, marked a day of success for them when the EPA released the MATS rule, requiring power plants to decrease and limit their emissions of toxic air pollutants.
Based on the EPA’s 2010 Toxic Release Inventory, the NRDC released the country’s “Toxic 20” list in 2012, ranking Michigan at number seven for total toxic emissions. Of the eight Great Lakes states, Michigan was ranked fourth in the region for the percent of coal-fired power plant mercury emissions per year, totaling 1,924 pounds of mercury, according to the NRDC’s June 2012 summary “Poisoning the Great Lakes: Mercury Emissions from Coal-Fired Power Plants in the Great Lakes Region.”
“Seventy-two percent of toxic mercury comes from coal, and that’s not the only thing that comes out — arsenic, lead, nickel are all released into the atmosphere,” said Nic Clark, Michigan director for Clean Water Action. Clark said that one of the ways environmentalists analyze atmospheric emissions and the damage of toxins like mercury to the rivers and streams is through precipitation, as emission particles attach to rain and snow.
“Every single state has fish advisories because of mercury. Here in Michigan, the DNR states you could consume no more than one fish per month due to the contamination of the Great Lakes region.”
The Great Lakes make up 1/4 of the world’s freshwater, and the region is also home to some of the nation’s worst coal plants, he said.
Out of 7,316 water body assessment units in Michigan, pollutants were assessed in 4,709 inland bodies by the Department of Environmental Quality. The 2013 Total Maximum Daily Load, a statewide report issued in March calculating the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive and still meet quality standards, reported that 743 inland bodies of water were compromised due to mercury in either fish tissue or the water.
Included in the list were Keego Harbor’s Cass Lake, Troy’s Emerald Lakes, Sylvan Lake, Shelby Township’s Stony Creek and West Bloomfield’s Middle Straits Lake. Mercury was found in the fish tissue in each of these lakes. For more information regarding fish consumption safety, visit www.michigan.gov/eatsafefish.
Since mercury lasts in the system for a lifetime, mercury consumed from fish during pregnancy is passed on to the fetus, which can affect the brain, nervous system, kidneys, and the genetic and immune systems, said Wibke Heymach, Michigan state field manager for Moms Clean Air Force. Moms Clean Air Force says it is a nonpartisan organization of mothers with a mission to fight against polluters.
Lawsuits between the EPA and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which DTE Energy is a member of, and the Utility Air Regulatory Group have been filed, she said. Moms Clean Air Force, Clean Water Action and the National Wildlife Foundation, amongst others, are asking energy companies that are suing to continue the current emission process to drop the litigation.
“For a cleaner environment and a cleaner future, we need to clean up the emissions,” said Brenda Archambo, Michigan outreach consultant for the National Wildlife Federation. “From our perspective, Michigan’s wildlife and natural resources are really what make us ‘Pure Michigan.’”
Despite the lawsuits, Michigan’s DEQ confirmed that the MATS ruling is still in effect and will be implemented April 2015 unless the courts rule in favor of the ACCCE and UARG. A hold on the implementation has not been placed due to the lawsuits. DTE Energy attorneys also stated that there is no hold on the ruling.
If the courts rule in favor of ACCCE and UARG, Michigan drafted a rule in 2006 that requires a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions from existing power plants by 2015, according to the DEQ. Barb Rosenbaum, air quality evaluation supervisor, and Lynn Fiedler, assistant division chief, said that the ruling, which is currently before the state’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, has the same schedule and requirements as the EPA’s MATS ruling.
Power plants that emit more than nine pounds of mercury per year will be required to meet the reduction. The three largest mercury-emitting, coal-fired power plants in Michigan are the Monroe Power Plant, the Belle River Power Plant and the St. Clair Power Plant, which are all owned by DTE Energy.
With the implementation of MATS, the EPA has projected a decrease in the emissions from the Michigan power plants from 1,924 pounds to 301 pounds per year by 2015.
“DTE Energy is moving forward with the plans to implement and install new technology to meet these requirements,” said Randi Berris, senior media relations representative for DTE Energy. According to Berris, the company has already started the installation of a $225 million project at the Belle River and St. Clair plants to implement new technology to meet the MATS requirements.
In addition, DTE Energy has also invested nearly $2 billion to install systems to substantially reduce emissions from the plant, including mercury, she said.
“We’ve installed two different systems at Monroe — flue gas desulfurization and a selective catalytic reduction system, also known as the scrubbers,” she said.
Monroe has four boilers for burning coal, and according to Berris, the Scrubbers are already installed on two boilers, with the remaining units to be operational by 2014.
“We are moving forward and taking action necessary to meet the MATS. When the boilers are operating all together, they will meet the new standards in 2015.”
The Monroe Power Plant, according to the NRDC’s summary, is the second largest emitter of mercury in the Great Lakes, but it is also one of the largest power plants in the Midwest.
According to DTE’s July 2013 TRI report, the total emissions, including chemicals in addition to mercury, decreased by 10 percent in 2012 due to the scrubbers. The report also states that the Monroe Power Plant emitted 596.07 pounds of mercury compounds into the air, which is a decrease from the 614 pounds in 2010. The EPA’s projection states that the emissions at the Monroe plant should decrease to 99 pounds by 2015 with the MATS.
On a state level, the Snyder administration is currently drafting a proposal to make changes to the way Michigan regulates air emissions, which will simplify the process for businesses to obtain air permits, according to officials. In addition, there is potentially a cost-reduction initiative that will benefit the industry, but it causes concerns amongst environmental groups.
According to Vince Hellwig, chief of air quality, the administration has created a discrete list of 750 compounds that businesses will have to go through a screen model to determine its impact on public health prior to releasing it into the atmosphere. Businesses will also have to evaluate anything carcinogenic. The list was reduced by 25 percent because it was determined those eliminated from the list were not as toxic, Hellwig said.
Hellwig stated that it is doubtful that the power plants will be affected by the regulations unless they make big permit changes or require a new permit. Once the plans have been drafted, it will be released for public comment.
Heymach, from Moms Clean Air Force, said her concern is that some of the toxins eliminated from the list have no existing data on them on whether or not they are harmful to the public.
“As a children’s health organization, that is something we’re worried about and that is something we cannot go along with,” she said. Heymach also stated that the administration should not allow a “wait and see whether it has adverse effects” game.
Though the environmental groups want to see Michigan move forward, Clark said that Clean Water Action hopes the administration will review the requirements and make sure they are not eroding the progress made in the last decade.
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