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MSU Power Plant in Trouble With State, Campus Groups

The MSU power plant has a dirty little secret: coal. The Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) heard testimony today concerning self-reported excess emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide.

Protesters sport signs against the University's coal use (photo credit: Emily Lawler)

The T.B. Simon power plant produces enough energy for the entire MSU campus, but in doing so allegedly violated its Renewable Operating Permit with the state of Michigan, as well as the federal Clean Air Act Amendments and the Michigan Administrative code.

According to their own reports, in the first quarter of 2008 the power plan reported 7.58 percent excess sulfur dioxide emissions and 4.75 percent excess nitrogen oxide emissions. These are classified as “high priority violations” by the Environmental Protection Agency, and join 2007 violations of a lesser caliber that were resolved without monetary penalties.

According to Karen Zelt, communications manager for the MSU Physical Plant, the violations were accidental.

“We had violations from our sulfur content because we’d purchased some bad coal from a vendor,” said Zelt. The nitrous oxide she said resulted from burning wet coal, and the power plant has since built a structure to house coal.

To address these violations, the DNRE has proposed a consent agreement that would put into place new operating protocol and mandate that the MSU power plant pay a $27,000 fee to the state’s general fund.

For the 16 students and alumni that testified against the consent agreement, that punishment is not enough. They called for an equal amount of money to be spent on transitioning the power plant to renewable resources, and said coal was an antiquated way of powering a world-class institution.

“The main reason we are running this campaign is that coal is an unacceptable fuel to be running campus on,” said Monica Embrey, part of the Sierra Club-sponsored MSU Beyond Coal group.

The students also cited health concerns stemming from the excess emissions, and did not know if the $27,000 would come out of their tuition. Zelt says she does not know where the money will come from.

Student protesters gather outside the administration building (photo credit: Emily Lawler).

In addition to attending the meeting, 25 students attended a rally outside the MSU administration building calling on the university to transition to completely renewable resources.

But at this point, Zelt says it’s just not possible.

“We would love to get off coal, we just can’t afford to,” she said.

MSU clubs Greenpeace, Beyond Coal, ECO and Global Exchange were involved in the rally.

However, DNRE Environmental Engineer Mike Kovalchick deals with these types of violations regularly, and says that at this point it’s too late for a renewable energy plan to be included in the state’s consent agreement.

“That’s certainly an option, but it has to come from MSU,” said Kovalchick. And that’s generally done within the first 30 days of receiving the violation notice, so at this point it’s too late. But that’s not to say that MSU couldn’t implement a renewable energy plan on its own, and that’s what students are hoping for.

“The coal plant is a big smear on this campus,” said Greenpeace member Kyle Pray. He said that of the 250,000 tons of coal MSU uses each year, most is obtained through mountain top removal mining methods in the Appalachian region. Embrey too considers this unethical.

Protesters carry mock solar panels and windmills (photo credit: Emily Lawler).

“Almost all of it comes from blowing off the tops of mountains in the poorest parts of the country,” said Embrey.

As far as the consent agreement goes, Kovalchick says that when the MDNRE makes a decision on the consent agreement, it will go to MSU and Attorney General Mike Cox for approval.

“That whole process could easily take 30-45 days,” said Kovalchick.

3 Responses to “MSU Power Plant in Trouble With State, Campus Groups”

  1. Economics of Energy says:

    Too bad all of those pesky students were accidentily breathing air while MSU accidentily violated its permit.

    Maybe Ms. Zelt should buy some “good” coal or maybe some “clean coal” instead of that ‘bad coal’ msu purchased. See her thoughts below on clean coal.

    “We had violations from our sulfur content because we’d purchased some bad coal from a vendor,” said Zelt. The nitrous oxide she said resulted from burning wet coal, and the power plant has since built a structure to house coal.

  2. Dorien Blythers says:

    Greetigns MSU Community,

    I just want to commend Emily Lawler for demonstrating excellence in journalism, and especially for being light to this issue via campus media. As a campus-environmentalist in Washington, DC at Howard University I am proud to see young journalists shedding light on environmental injustices nationwide.

    Respectfully,

    Dorien Blythers

  3. Emily Lawler says:

    Haha thanks Dorien… people are going to think I planted this :) Do you know if your campus is dependent on coal too?

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