Friday, December 04, 2015

FOLK, local residents, EPA investigate L'Anse Warden biomass plant permit violations; DEQ to hold public hearings

By Michele Bourdieu, with information from Friends of the Land of Keweenaw (FOLK) and Michigan DEQ

Pictured here are chemically treated railroad ties waiting to be chipped for use in the L'Anse Warden biomass plant in L'Anse, Michigan. (Photo © and courtesy Catherine Andrews)

L'ANSE -- The L'Anse Warden Electric Company (LWEC), an alleged Biomass Plant located on the shore of Lake Superior, is operating in spite of violating their operating permit. Even though their permit only requires an independent stack test once every five years, they were unable to meet the emissions standard for hydrogen chloride on September 24, 2015.

According to Friends of the Land of Keweenaw (FOLK), a regional grassroots environmental group, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is failing to protect local citizens and the environment. Citizen complaints of noxious odors, fugitive dust releases, open piles of shredded tires, "soot blowing" and exposed stockpiles of chemically-treated railroad ties on the ground in the fuel yard have been rebuffed by the DEQ.

During FOLK's annual meeting in October, L'Anse resident Catherine Andrews spoke about citizen complaints and pointed out some facts about the LWEC plant. The fuel mix burned in the plant includes 4 tons per hour of tire derived fuel (TDF), 20.1 tons per hour of creosote-treated railroad ties, .25 tons per hour of pentachlorophenol (PCP)-treated railroad ties from Canada, and 5.4 tons per hour of fines and bark (aka wood chips).

At the Oct. 8 annual FOLK meeting in the Portage Lake District Library, L'Anse resident Catherine Andrews reported on apparent pollution from the plant. She is pictured here with a display of articles about the L'Anse Warden Plant in local newspapers, including especially the L'Anse Sentinel. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

"Two local doctors have expressed concerns (about pollution from the plant)," Andrews said at the meeting.

Since the doctors have spoken out, reporting, for example, that patients have suffered from respiratory ailments, the local residents are more empowered to voice their complaints, Andrews added.

She noted pentachlorophenol (PCP) has been banned in the U.S. since 1984, with some exceptions for industrial use.

One person in the audience at the FOLK meeting made this comment on Canada's sending the PCP-treated railroad ties to the L'Anse plant: "We are the waste disposal for Canada!"

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), both pentachlorophenol and creosote are health hazards.

"Exposure to high levels of pentachlorophenol can cause increases in body temperature, liver effects, damage to the immune system, reproductive effects, and developmental effects," says a fact sheet from ATSDR.*

ATSDR adds, "The EPA has determined that pentachlorophenol is a probable human carcinogen and the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) considers it possibly carcinogenic to humans."*

ATSDR offers similar warnings about creosote.

"Coal tar creosote is the most widely used wood preservative in the United States," according to ATSDR. "Breathing vapors of the creosotes, coal tar, coal tar pitch, or coal tar pitch volatiles can cause irritation of the respiratory tract." **

ATSDR adds the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and EPA have both determined that coal tar creosote is probably carcinogenic to humans.**

FOLK sent a letter to ATSDR on Nov. 30, 2015, requesting that the agency "conduct a health consultation to evaluate the health risks associated with the operations of the L’Anse Warden Electric Company (LWEC) biomass power facility, associated fuels management facility and legacy pollution associated with the adjacent CertainTeed mineral board plant."

In the letter FOLK mentions receiving complaints from L'Anse area residents about exposure to hazardous substances, blowing soot from the LWEC, acrid odors and maintenance activity resulting in loud explosions and large releases of soot. FOLK also notes concerns about a high likelihood of lingering legacy pollutants, including asbestos and other toxic chemicals, from the nearby CertainTeed operation.

LWEC is located near a preschool Child Development Center, a HUD assisted living complex and a K-8 Catholic School. The Falls River flows into Lake Superior between the fuel yard, where contaminated fuel sources are stored, and the boiler.

Local resident and business owner Aileen Ketola states, "Think of what this is doing to the children. They are killing us! Why doesn't somebody stop them?"

Shredded tires are stored outside before being burned. Tire particulates drift to surrounding areas, including a nearby school, where black soot lands on children's clothing. (Photo © and courtesy Catherine Andrews)

Andrews, who has worked as a volunteer at the assisted living complex, noted complaints by the residents.

"A few people have moved because of the odors, dust and soot," she said.

One person who moved from the assisted living reported not having to take his allergy medicine after moving away.

LWEC continues to burn a combination of natural gas, chemically-treated railroad ties, "fines and bark" and shredded tires, leading many to argue that the plant should be classified as a Commercial and Industrial Solid Waste Incinerator (CISWI) instead of a Biomass Plant.

Dedicated efforts by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, FOLK, Partnership for Public Integrity and other concerned citizens have led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assign "Priority Status" to their review of the allegations against LWEC. On Nov. 4, 2015, EPA sent a certified letter to the Chief Operating Officer of LWEC requiring him to submit their records including proof of the assertions of compliance they have made in the past.

The DEQ initially granted a public hearing in L'Anse for October 29, 2015, but postponed it until January after LWEC was found to be in violation of its operating permit. Later, the DEQ postponed the meeting again until March 2016.

DEQ to hold public hearings on changes in Air Pollution Control Rules Dec. 7

On Oct. 26, 2015, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced it is seeking public comment about proposed changes to its Air Pollution Control Rules and will hold public hearings on these changes Dec. 7 in Lansing. The extended comment period runs through Dec. 18. These documents, as well as the proposed language changes to the rules and the public hearing notice, are available at The proposed changes address transparency and public engagement, as well as the analysis of toxic air contaminants. In addition, they include updates to the requirements for Renewable Operating Permits (ROPs) and revisions to the overall exemptions from obtaining installation permits.

Diane Miller, a former Keweenaw resident and Finlandia professor, who now teaches at Mid Michigan Community College downstate, has done research on the L'Anse Warden Plant and continues to express her concerns about its pollution.*** She plans to attend the Dec. 7 hearing in Lansing on the Air Pollution Control Rules and hopes to attend the hearing on the L'Anse Warden Plant now scheduled for March.

Diane Miller (standing, left) joins Catherine Andrews in a presentation on biomass, "Power from Trees?" at the Portage Lake District Library in April 2015. Based on their research, Miller and Andrews challenged claims that biomass is "environmentally friendly" and fielded questions from the audience. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

"As I try to figure out how and why the DEQ allows the L'Anse Warden biomass plant, which is in violation of air quality standards, to continue operating beyond the expiration of its current operating permit, and as I prepare to come to a public hearing on the matter that was postponed in October, scheduled for "sometime in January," and postponed again for "sometime in March," I feel I need to learn more about how the DEQ works," Miller told Keweenaw Now recently. "So when the DEQ announced an opportunity to comment on proposed air quality rule changes, I decided I needed to participate."

Miller notes the language in the DEQ rules is not easy to decipher, and she hopes the Dec. 7 hearing will provide an opportunity to have her questions answered.

"I will genuinely be asking for answers on how our air quality is being monitored and protected," she said.

The DEQ will host the two public hearings on Air Pollution Control Rules changes Monday, Dec. 7, in the Con Con Rooms, Constitution Hall, Atrium Level, 525 West Allegan Street in Lansing, including an opportunity to discuss the proposed changes with DEQ staff for one hour before the formal hearing begins. To accommodate different schedules, the hearing is split into afternoon and evening sessions, with question and answer times preceding each. The hearing will run from 3 p.m. - 5 p.m. and reconvene at 7 p.m. Interested individuals are invited to either or both sessions. 

Editor's Notes:

* Click here for more details in a Fact Sheet on pentachlorophenol from ATSDR.

** Click here for a similar ATSDR Fact Sheet on creosote.

*** See a recent Keweenaw Now guest article by Diane Miller, "Guest article: Questions on air pollution from L'Anse Warden biomass plant and postponed public hearing."

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