Saturday, February 3, 2007

Was The Oak Creek Power Plant Approval Legal? Good Question.

It turns out that the huge new coal-fired power plant that WE Energies is building along Lake Michigan in Oak Creek is not yet free of the legal and regulatory questions that had slowed its approval.

Partially built, the $2.2 billion project will begin operations in 2009.

The State of Wisconsin gave the utility its permitting approval under a federal rule that defined the project as "existing," rather than "new" - - a nuanced, pro-industry bureaucratic ruling - - and that meant the utility could eliminate expensive cooling towers from the construction plans.

Without cooling towers - - and they've been standard in modern power plant construction for decades - - the more than two billion gallons of water daily required by the plant for operations will be sucked in through a pipe in Lake Michigan.

That will kill alot of fish, according to experts within the federal government and environmental groups.

Last week, a New York federal appeals court struck down the rule that allowed the Oak Creek project to be built without cooling towers.

A Wisconsin circuit court judge in Madison must decide if the Oak Creek project needs cooling towers.

The utility denies its plant and water intake pipe will kill fish or harm the lake, and says its state-issued permits are valid.

This is another of those cases that pits industry against environmentalists, and a company's bottom line against stewardship of natural resources.

You'd think by now, especially with the multiple concerns about climate change and stresses on the Great Lakes, that industry would have done more to avoid these adversarial relationships with the natural world that we all depend on for survival.

As this case winds its way through the courts, let's praise Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club for these publicly-spirited achievements:

They've kept a steady eye and the media's focus on the health of Lake Michigan, and they've made sure that the convenience of utilities isn't allowed to supersede the rule of law.

Wisconsin utilities operate with state-approved monopolies and guaranteed rates of return. That's a pretty sweet deal in a free enterprise economy, so is it asking too much of the utilities to meet the highest legal and environmental standards?

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