L’Anse plant releases could pose health risk

L’ANSE – Releases from the L’Anse Warden Electric Company power plant, a nearby fuels processing facility and the CertainTeed L’Anse Plant could pose a public health risk according to a federal agency, but addressing the potential problem is being met with mixed results.

Jeffery Loman, a Keweenaw Bay Indian Community member currently with nearly 30 years of environmental management experience before his retirement in December, filed in February a petition to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an Atlanta, Ga.-based agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, asking for a public health assessment to be done.

Two ATSDR representatives during an April phone conversation, though, told Loman a public health assessment could not be done due to insufficient data. Releases from the plants are potentially harmful, though, according to an evaluation they conducted on Loman’s petition.

Loman, who was most recently a senior special advisor for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Alaska Region, sent a follow-up email to those same representatives this Wednesday asking for confirmation of that result. He also expounded on additional issues, including LWEC employees fearing that any negative environmental reporting would result in being terminated.

One employee emailed Loman, wishing to remain anonymous because of potential retaliation against him, described the working conditions at LWEC as “awful,” while describing specific health impacts. Another worker reported an alleged spill and was terminated the next day with no reason given.

“In short, I have absolutely no confidence that the releases of hazardous substances from any of these three facilities will be addressed by complaints from workers,” Loman said in his email to ATSDR, which had not been responded to by Friday.

In his February petition, Loman said he interviewed several tribal and non-tribal residents who live or work in the Village of L’Anse, and they “consistently report health problems, including eye irritation, difficulty breathing, moderate to severe headaches and occasional nausea.”

All the people he interviewed are adults, but Loman noted a few hundred feet from the LWEC discharge stack there is a child development center, and Sacred Heart School is just a few hundred feet beyond that.

He also, according to his email to ATSDR, recently looked at environmental dust that had accumulated along a resident’s porch window sill, and after examining it under a handheld digital microscope he said there appeared to be asbestos fibers. He noted that such observation, though, would be inconclusive without further study.

LWEC, a subsidiary of Traxys North America, LLC, is a biomass-fueled electric plant that went into operation in 2009. It was previously a coal-, oil- and natural gas-fueled facility. Some of the biomass material comes from large quantities of railroad ties, which are treated with a variety of wood preservatives, including creosote, listed as a toxic substance by the ATSDR. Creosote makes the ties darker. The public can easily see thousands of ties piled in the wood yard between LWEC and CertainTeed.

The CertainTeed L’Anse plant, formerly owned and operated by Celotex Corporation, creates ceiling tiles, and the two plants share a great number of resources. Excess steam from the power plant, for example, is channeled to CertainTeed for use in production of mineral fiber ceiling tiles. CertainTeed then provides scrap from its production process to LWEC for fuel to burn.

According to Loman’s petition, legacy polution from the former Celotex plant is “daunting and includes the historic discharge of millions of gallons of toxic effluent that has likely impacted soil, ground and surface waters and other biota.”

Loman also shares concern as a tribal member, saying “decade after decade the pollution by these facilities operating in this area that lies between the two portions of the L’Anse Indian Reservation (Baraga and L’Anse) has continued and contributed to the diminished use of tribal trust resources that were granted to KBIC by treaty.”

Loman, who now lives on the reservation, tried to encourage and assist KBIC and local government elected officials to take up the matter, but when they declined, he opted to file the petition on his own. Now, with the ATSDR saying it’s unable to conduct a public health assessment, he may have to pursue alternate routes.

Some people have asked him to secure the data that would allow the assessment to take place, but he doesn’t believe it should be his responsibility and he noted he’s an environmental manager by training, not a scientist.

“That’s for people with badges to come in and do an investigation,” he said in a Daily Mining Gazette interview.

But he also noted that getting the Environmental Protection Agency involved, for example, could create new problems for the already struggling local economy.

“I can petition the EPA, but I’m reluctant to do it because you really lose control from there,” he said, citing an example of a community about the size of L’Anse evacuated as a result of addressing public health threats. He said if he does pursue the EPA route, the legacy pollution problem could “easily rank it high enough for a Superfund listing.”

A Superfund designation would require a complete clean-up of the contaminated site. The only local example is the Torch Lake Superfund site in Lake Linden, which is being clean of mill tailings (stamp sands) that contaminated the lake sediments and shoreline of Torch Lake.

Loman hopes representatives from the plant reach out to the community, including the KBIC, and make improvements themselves so EPA involvement isn’t needed. He has seen some signs of improvement, especially by Traxys (which owns LWEC) representatives.

“The (LWEC) emission stack is going clean. There has not been intermittent unpermitted releases of ash that have literally covered the downtown,” Loman said in the Gazette interview. “Recently that stack, every time I look at it has been clean. My sense is they’ve decided to put the nose to the grindstone.”

LWEC has also set up a Citizens Advisory Panel to begin discussions about the problem. An informational meeting was held on April 15, and future CAP meetings, which will be open to the public, are expected to be scheduled soon.

With CertainTeed, though, Loman said he “has not heard a peep out of them.”

Attempts were not made at this time to reach representatives from LWEC and CertainTeed, but future Gazette articles about the ongoing situation will provide that opportunity.

“CertainTeed holds the keys to whether the EPA is petitioned. I don’t want to have to do it,” Loman said.

But he will if he needs to.

“I’d like to at least see an attempt by CertainTeed to reach out to L’Anse,” he said. “The choice is theirs.”