Project faces resistance from EPA and Sierra Club

Lucy Hough

As the stimulus package offers hope for various projects across the nation, Northern’s largest shovel-ready project is facing resistance. Last week, Northern’s plans for a power plant were put on hold when the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) denied its permit for completion.

Shovel-ready projects are plans given to the federal government for consideration of funds from the stimulus package. These projects are unique because they require plans to exist so that work can begin immediately.

One of NMU’s shovel-ready projects is a combined heat and power project that introduces wood-burning energy to the university. This process is better for the environment than burning coal, according to Art Gischia, director of auxiliary services, though coal will be available to burn if wood is unavailable.

The appeal against the permit was brought to the EPA by Michigan’s chapter of the Sierra Club, a group that works to ensure the quality of the environment. The Sierra Club challenged the permit issued by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) for a number of reasons including questions about aspects of the boilers that will be used and whether the plant was abiding by the regulations that monitor the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted.

“Basically, the permit was pretty badly flawed. That’s what the EPA agreed with us on,” said Anne Woiwode, director of Michigan’s Sierra Club.

The MDEQ first awarded the permit to the plant in May 2008, and the Sierra Club brought their concerns directly to the MDEQ. When they did nothing to fix the problems, the Sierra Club took their concerns national, to the EPA. The EPA held a hearing in October to consider both the positions of the MDEQ and the Sierra Club, and the ultimate decision was issued on Feb. 18.

Another of the Sierra Club’s complaints was that coal would be burned in the plant which is bad for the environment.

“We know that NMU has made a pretty strong commitment to energy efficiency, (so) we were really surprised when the university proposed a coal-fueled plant,” Woiwode said.

According to Gischia, coal will only be used as a back-up fuel source in the plant just in case wood to burn is not readily available. Coal will not burn in the plant unless it is needed.

“We can’t tell people in the dorms that we can’t have heat because we don’t have wood. Anytime you limit yourself to one option you subject yourself to market conditions that put you in a vulnerable position,” Gischia said.

Gischia said that the EPA’s decision to deny the permit does not demand a revision of blueprints, but more a clarification in the final permit done by the MDEQ. He said that the EPA emphasized the importance of clarifying within the permit how the plant will function.

The university is waiting for a response by the MDEQ on what will change within the permit.

“It’s important to note that the suit was never challenged against the university,” said Gischia.

Funding from the stimulus plan is still possible, but nothing can be done until the revised permit is approved by the EPA. If the permit is approved, it remains valid for 18 months, and Northern will have to begin production within that time. Northern is now waiting until the permit is once again discussed.

“Once you have that big piece of the puzzle you have start looking at funding. Even if we had the dollars in hand we couldn’t start it because we don’t have the permit,” Gischia said.