Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Board Condemns We Energies Discharge Permit

DNR could allow small variance in mercury discharged. County board, Sierra Club object.

By - Apr 26th, 2019 11:28 am
Lake Michigan. CC0 Public Domain.

Lake Michigan. CC0 Public Domain.

The Milwaukee County Board is moving to oppose a variance requested by We Energies related to the mercury effluent discharged into Lake Michigan.

We Energies has applied for a variance that would allow them to discharge, at the most, a load of 4.1 parts per trillion of mercury in a single day. This number has caused outrage among residents of southeastern Wisconsin and an official rebuke from the Milwaukee County Board. Organizations like the Sierra Club and the Clean Power Coalition have also advocated against the variance.

The board unanimously adopted a resolution Thursday that calls on the Department of Natural Resources to deny the permit to We Energies. Part of the resolution reads, “Efforts should be made to reduce, not increase, the amount of harmful substances deposited into our air and waterways.” However, as the DNR points out, if We Energies does not receive approval of the variance, the DNR loses their only regulatory mechanism that could force We Energies to undertake the most effective process for pollutant reduction.

We Energies requested the variance in their new waste water permit because in recent years they have started to show higher levels of mercury discharged in their wastewater. The standard limit, set by state law, for how much mercury a company like We Energies can discharge is a monthly average of 1.3 nanograms per liter, commonly referred to as 1.3 parts per trillion. Up until recently, data showed that We Energies’ monthly averages were below the standard, according to Jason Knutson, an environmental engineering supervisor with the DNR. Once We Energies started showing the “potential for exceedance” of those standards it was required to apply for the variance.

The variance allows We Energies to discharge 4.1 nanograms per liter, without being fined, as long as they discharge low amounts the rest of the month that average out at or below the monthly standard, Knutson said. While this daily maximum is higher than the average monthly standard of 1.3 nanograms per liter, the variance does not allow We Energies to discharge more mercury than before, he noted. The utility company will still be required to comply with the monthly average discharge standard.

“We Energies is committed to keeping our mercury discharge as low as possible,” said Brendan Conway, media relations manager for We Energies. The majority of the time, noted, We energies is discharging below 1.3 parts per trillion. But effluent discharge is not a linear, or static, metric. It can change day to day, sometimes with the wind, he said.

But environmental advocates like the Sierra Club and the Clean Power Coalition are staunchly opposed to the variance, on the grounds that We Energies should be making steps to move towards cleaner forms of energy and that no amount of neurotoxins dumped in a waterway is acceptable. This is generally the line taken by Sup. Steven Shea, whose district is just north of the power plant, and is the spirit of the resolution passed by the County Board. “There is no scientific, environmental or moral reason, why We Energies, or anybody else for that matter should be putting more mercury in Lake Michigan,” he said at a meeting of the intergovernmental relations committee, where he introduced his resolution.

Shea was at a public meeting in February with more than 100 attendees who overwhelmingly opposed the DNR granting the variance. His resolution is, “just echoing what the County Board heard from citizens of Milwaukee County,” Shea said. The DNR’s mercury standards are in place to protect wildlife and public health and Shea said he believes the variance will be a threat to both.

Right now the DNR is collecting public comment on the permit application. Once this process is complete the agency will consider the information collected and then make a decision on the permit, Knutson said.

The variance includes a number of conditions from the DNR. An important one is a commitment to source reduction efforts, whereby We Energies will look at their system and identify where the mercury that they discharge is coming from and reduce it at the source. These sources could be chemical additives or simply raw materials. Based on experience, the DNR believes source reduction is a far more reliable way to reduce mercury pollution than water treatment. And treatment is what We Energies currently does. If the DNR approves the We Energies wastewater permit without the variance, they also approve the permit without a regulatory mechanism to force We Energies to do source reduction.

“Source reduction prevents mercury from ever entering the wastewater, keeping it out of our waters and solid waste,” Knutson said. “Furthermore, DNR has not observed success in treating wastewater to reliably and consistently attain an effluent concentration of <1.3 ng/L mercury.”

Another piece of the variance requires We Energies to switch from wet ash handling to dry ash handling. Miranda Ehrlich of the Sierra Club said the wet ash handling involves mixing coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal, with water. Federal law requires facilities like the one in Oak Creek to go to dry ash handling by 2020. But, in special circumstances, a facility can have until 2023 to make the change. This permit allows We Energies until 2023, if approved. 

“We think given that there’s this huge mercury issue, there’s not a good reason… to push back that date,” Ehrlich said. “They need to do it now.” 

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