Gas plant proposal fuels fight in small Michigan town

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

East China Township — In this rural town where residents enjoy life at a comfortable pace along a scenic river, Bill Dibble has a visceral reaction to a proposed natural gas-fired power plant.

This community of 3,700 people has long driveways, expansive manicured lawns, and two coal-fired power plants. So the idea that DTE Energy would invest in another plant that emits pollution roiled Dibble, even though the utility plans to shutter one existing facility.

Sandy Attebury, 71, and her husband Fred Attebury, 86, have a close-up view of the old St. Clair Power Plant from their backyard  in East China Twp.

The $1 billion Blue Water Energy Center would "not be a good thing," he said. Wind turbines and solar panels would be ideal and safer, he said.

"Gas isn't for me," said the 74-year-old Dibble on a recent sun-soaked day from his front porch, a mile and a half from where DTE Energy's new plant would be. "I'm not for any kind of exhaust."

Residents here have differing views about the new facility that is expected to be completed by 2022. It was green-lighted in late April by the Michigan Public Service Commission despite opposition from a phalanx of environmental groups, which have appealed the decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Among the new plant supporters is 49-year-old Rob Cole, who supports the hydraulic fracturing revolution that has increased supplies of natural gas.

"Natural gas, good, providing it doesn't go up," Cole said, referring to an explosion. "I think it's better than coal. ... I think we're transitioning in the right way."

"I think the environmentalists have lost their minds," he said. "I guess we'd have to all move to Florida where it's warm year-round and we could survive without the winter. ... It's their goal to keep pushing and pushing and pushing, and they'll go too far."

DTE Energy plans to build a $1 billion natural-gas-fired power plant in East China Township, Michigan, by 2022.

DTE officials argue that its natural gas plant — to be built just off the river and north and east of two coal-fired power plants off Route 29 — would be safe and provide reliable electricity to 850,000 homes. Environmentalists contend it would be too costly and produce excessive carbon emissions.

But residents here, in Michigan's thumb region, say they feel like nobody really cares what they think.

Many residents interviewed have a story or a connection to DTE's coal-fired St. Clair Power Power Plant that has been around since 1953 and that the Detroit utility plans to shut. They speak of relatives who helped build the old electricity-producing plant or talk about the blaring sounds from the tower stacks that they've adjusted to.

The Belle River Power Plant just west of the St. Clair started in 1984 and will operate on coal until at least 2030, officials said.

With all that history, though, East China Township residents say they welcome change, especially in a region where there are smokestacks up and down the river line and some residents have been diagnosed with cancer.

DTE, environmentalists spar

Utility officials have met with many residents in the East China region, and "I haven't heard a single resident or person in St. Clair County ask me about the environmental question," said Trevor Lauer, president and chief operating officer at DTE.

The St. Clair Power Plant sits along the St. Clair River  in East China Twp.

DTE Energy has been diversifying its power portfolio to include more renewable sources including wind and solar. Michigan’s largest utility said last year it plans to reduce carbon emissions in the next three decades in part by increasing its generation of renewable energy by a factor of six — from the current 1,000 megawatts to 7,000 megawatts.

The aim is to cut its carbon emissions 30 percent by the 2020s and 80 percent by 2050.

But Lauer said DTE is the largest renewable developer in Michigan "and one of the largest utility developers in the country for renewables."

When coal or natural gas plants go offline for repairs or maintenance, the utility turns to renewable and other energy sources to kick in, Lauer said. But "the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow," he added, saying the technology isn't there yet to go full-time to solar and wind.

"My answer to an environmental person asking about the Blue Water Energy Center is DTE is a company that overwhelmingly supports renewables," Lauer said. "The plant is a perfect addition to our fleet so it will allow us to continue to add more and more renewables to the electric grid and make sure we maintain reliable energy for all our customers."

But DTE's solution is "putting all of the eggs in the gas basket" by depending mostly on natural gas, said Ariana Gonzalez, an energy policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is one of the environmental organizations appealing the state's plant approval.

"I don't think any of the environmental advocates who intervened in this case said that we think tomorrow that there can be 100 percent renewable energy efficiency," Gonzalez said. "None of us said that. ... What we said was what energy efficiency and renewable energy can do is substantial. Because it's good for people's health, it's good for people's pocketbooks, and it's good for the environment."

Gonzalez also questioned DTE's commitment to alternative energy sources.

"An 1,100-megawatt gas plant doesn't sound like a transition, that sounds like going all in," she said. "It's too much and too big. They should be looking at a portfolio of options."

Sandy Attebury, 71, and her husband Fred Attebury, 86, have a close-up view of the old St. Clair Power Plant from their backyard  in East China Twp.

On the front lines

The issue of pollution concerns residents such as Fred and Sandy Attebury. Every day, they see the smoke stacks, the St. Clair Power Plant's loading dock and the ships on the river from their front door or back yard.

"The plant itself used to be noisier, but over the years they've figured out how to make it quieter," said Fred Attebury, 86. "There was a lot more coal dust when we first moved in here 50 years ago."

While DTE has been a "good neighbor" with the plant, Attebury said he is uneasy about the proposed natural gas-fired plant despite the utility's assurances. He's more in favor of solar and wind power.

"They have people who are practiced at public relations, so they tell you what they want you to know. Or want you to hear," Attebury said about DTE. "But when DTE decides to do something, they are going to do it no matter what people say. So we're going to have to live with that."

Public meetings have been held in St. Clair County to talk about the plant, and more are scheduled, DTE officials said. But the Atteburys said they haven't heard about any, other than a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality hearing set for June 18 to discuss the plant permitting process.

The Belle River Power Plant is surrounded by crop fields and woods along King Road near Remer Road. Company officials are discussing adding onto the plant.

Sandy Attebury, 71, has more worries than her husband "because right now there's concern about air pollution" even if natural gas is cleaner than coal.

"I would rather have solar and wind versus the gas, but I don't see that happening," she said. "I think because we're right next door, it would have been prudent for them to address the residents" directly.

In April, representatives from 12 environmental groups such as Environment Michigan and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition dropped off 10,000 signatures at DTE headquarters in downtown Detroit opposing the gas plant during a slightly tense encounter with security officials.

There are too many risks to people and the environment, said Michelle Martinez, statewide coordinator for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.

"It's a massive mistake for the next 30 to 40 years to assume that methane is going to be cost stable and also environmentally stable when all the climate models show dramatic changes in our environment over the next 30 to 40 years, which would be the life cycle of these plants," Martinez said. "Why put Michiganders' health at risk for a risky deal in a risky time?"

Harley Flagler, 83, who lives a handful of houses down from the Atteburys along the river, said he moved into his home when that facility was built in the 1950s. Other than some coal residue over the years, he said, the plant has been a good neighbor.

Flagler's main concern is that DTE Energy "keep it clean for the people and the environment."

But natural gas still means pollution for Dibble, who recently moved back to East China from Florida to spend time with his children and grandchildren.

"It probably is better than coal — coal is nasty — but I don't think it's that much better," he said. " ... You're not going to see it, but there will be pollution coming out. It's got to exhaust."

But, Dibble said with a head shake, "it's here, and there's not much I can do about it."

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