The Bush administration is making it easier for coal-burning power plants to avoid upgrading to modern pollution prevention equipment. But in some cases the power companies are bowing to public pressure to reduce pollution anyway. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Alquist reports:
The Bush administration is making it easier for coal-burning power plants to avoid upgrading to
modern pollution prevention equipment. But in some cases the power companies are bowing to
public pressure to reduce pollution anyway. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Alquist
Elizabeth Dickinson didn’t get any kind of warning about air quality in her neighborhood. She
really didn’t need one. She says couldn’t avoid noticing the pollution in the air.
“A couple years ago, there was almost a week where the air quality in my neighborhood was so
bad that you literally couldn’t sleep. There was a burning back in my throat.”
Dickinson lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, not too far from one of the oldest coal burning plants
operated by Minnesota’s leading supplier of electricity, Xcel Energy.
She and many other people have been actively working to pressure the company to address the air
quality problems they believe are caused by Xcel’s older plants.
And in a rare move among power companies, Xcel Energy is doing something. In May 2002, the
company put forth a voluntary proposal to convert its two oldest coal burning plants to natural
gas. The oldest plant, Riverside, lies in northeast Minneapolis.
(sound of power plant)
Since it opened in 1911, the Riverside plant has changed very little when it comes to emitting
pollutants. It was grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act of 1970 – which means the plant isn’t
subject to federal environmental mandates.
It didn’t have to install modern pollution control devices unless it upgraded the plant. And now,
under the Bush administration’s new rules, even upgrading it might not trigger the threshold that
would require it to reduce emissions.
“For a little bit over two years, one of the first things I was charged with was to look at all the
emissions in and around southeast Minneapolis and Riverside plant came back as a sore thumb
because of the glaring emissions.”
Justin Eibenholtz is the environmental coordinator for a Minneapolis neighborhood improvement
group. He says that’s why Excel’s decision to convert Riverside to natural gas is such a big deal.
Once it’s converted, the old plant will cut air pollutants by 99 percent. Mercury emissions will be
Neighborhood groups such as Eibenhotz’s and big environmental groups alike are praising
Excel’s decision. The Great Lakes Program Coordinator for the Sierra Club, Emily Green, says
the reduction in emissions will mean a better quality of life for residents who live in the Great
Lakes region. That’s because the mercury and other pollutants that were emitted from the plant
often ended up in the Great Lakes through a process called air deposition. That meant pollutants
got into the food chain and contaminated fish.
“The Great Lakes are like a giant bathtub with a very, very slow drain, so that what we put into
the Great Lakes stays there.”
Green says the pollutants don’t go away. They just end up contaminating the air and the water.
“We swim in them, we drink them, you know, the fish swim around in them, and so it’s very,
very important that we recognize, despite their size, how fragile the Great Lakes are.”
Besides polluting the lakes, the air pollution drifted for hundreds of miles, causing health
problems. The effects are already apparent. An independent report commissioned from the
Environmental Protection Agency says pollution from the oldest and dirtiest power plants kills
more than thirty thousand Americans each year – almost twice the number of people killed by
drunk driving and homicide combined.
While the natural gas conversion won’t reduce the level of mercury in the Great Lakes
immediately, it will mean it won’t add to the problem. It also means a more efficient use of a
Ron Ellsner is the project manager for Xcel’s proposal.
“The new combined cycles that we’re going to install are on the order of 30 percent more
efficient than what our current coal cycle is. They do that much better a job converting that
energy into fuel into electricity.”
It comes at a cost, though. Xcel estimates converting its Minneapolis and Saint Paul plants will
amount to one billion dollars. By Xcel’s estimate, it’ll be the most expensive power plant
conversion in the history of the United States, and the cost of the conversion will be passed on to
That’s fine by Elizabeth Dickinson. She says she, and her neighbors, were paying for it in other
ways already, such as additional healthcare costs. Dickinson says the estimated extra 15 cents a
day for her power bill will be worth it.
“You know, these are the hidden costs of coal burning and they’re huge, and you know, they’re
usually left out of these equations and we’re saying they can’t be left out any longer, they just
can’t be, because it’s too high a cost for us as a society.”
Government regulators still have to approve the plan. Minnesota’s utilities commission is
holding a final round of public hearings before voting for or against Xcel’s proposal to convert to
If the conversion is approved, it will likely put pressure on other power companies in the Great
Lakes region to do the same.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Ann Alquist.