Progress made at L’Anse Warden Electric Company

WHITE PINE – Progress continues to be made at L’Anse Warden Electric Company in terms of environmental stewardship and community outreach, according to discussions from Tuesday’s Citizens Advisory Panel meeting at LWEC’s White Pine Electric Power Office.

During the quarterly meeting attended by 15 stakeholders, Steve Walsh, CEO of Traxys Power Group, which operates LWEC; J.R. Richardson, Traxys technical and regulatory affairs manager; and Darryl Koski, operations manager at the L’Anse plant, gave an overview of the White Pine facility and its relationship to the L’Anse plant, and answered questions.

At White Pine, the refinery and power station were originally built to support mining operations at what became the last major copper mine in Michigan. Inmet Mining Corporation shut down the mine in 1995, and there has since been an ecosystem restoration project at the site, including reforesting the tailings area.

“Inmet did a really good job, in my opinion, of doing an environmental control and clean-up here,” Walsh said. “They really deserve a gold star for it. They continue to own and have responsibility for a lot of the area here.”

Now about 90 percent of the 26 square miles underground is filled with water, but Walsh said the mine could easily be re-opened, even though the current owner First Quantum Minerals Ltd. told Walsh they are not interested in re-opening it.

“That said, would they sell it to somebody that would be? Certainly,” Walsh said. “Despite what you may hear, is it technically feasible to re-open the mine, and is there enough ore left down there? Absolutely. Without a question. … Within a short period of time you could get down there and start mining the north end, which was never touched.”

The power station was built in 1960 and at one time had a capacity of more than 70 megawatts of power through three steam turbines and two gas turbines. Traxys now owns about 26 acres in and around the power station, and it runs the station about 25 to 30 days out of the year, primarily for energy grid stabilization.

The facility has one boiler that burns just coal and another converted just eight months ago to burn coal and natural gas.

“The long-term business plan, we would like to convert the White Pine facility, use the existing steam turbines, and do what was done at L’Anse, which is convert to biomass,” Walsh said. “The problem is getting someone to take the uptake of that.”

He said it’s an “uphill battle” to switch to biomass because it is more expensive than a gas turbine, for example, which is the cheapest form of energy. DTE Energy, which has a long-term contract at L’Anse Warden for biomass, favors wind turbines over biomass.

“The problem with wind is that on a good day they work about one third of the time. The advantage of biomass is that we’re going pretty much 24/7,” Walsh said.

Also, with a gas turbine, Walsh said it would only take maybe two people to operate it, whereas a biomass facility would employ 25 people to run it and maybe another 25 to feed it with wood.

“We’re here to provide a service, but we fundamentally believe that Michigan needs, particularly the U.P., needs more biomass, commercial biomass,” said Walsh, who noted the wood basket, or availability of wood leftovers is abundant in the U.P.

“We’re the bottom feeders of the tree world. We take the stuff nobody else wants …” Walsh said, like railroad ties.

While the ties are coated in wood preservative, generally creosote or Penta – the latter of which is being phased out, even in Canada – burning them is safer than other ways of eliminating them, according to Walsh.

“The alternative to the ties, if you don’t burn it, you put it into a landfill,” Walsh said.

LWEC is looking into other forms of biomass as well, but not genetically engineered trees. Some areas use that option to create closed-loop biomass by running farms of fast-growing trees to burn. With the amount of wood waste in the U.P., that option “is probably not necessary.”

Jeffery Loman, who initially filed a petition alleging environmental hazards at LWEC and CertainTeed Ceilings, in L’Anse, admitted he is seeing improvements in the way the plants are operating now.

“From my own personal observations and from the same people that came to me and asked me to help them with what they perceived as air pollution problems and surface run-off from the woodyard problems, people report that whatever the problem was appears to be fixed,” he said. “… It’s abundantly clear to me that some improvement has been made with respect to the emissions out of the stack.”

Koski said some changes were made during a routine December outage that created some unforeseen problems with precipitator performance (the flue gas cleaning equipment).

“We resolved that issue in our April outage,” Koski said. “That’s why you don’t see the issue. It should be known to everyone here, even when we do have visible smoke coming out of the stack, we have never been out of compliance.

“… I take a lot of pride in the fact just this morning running to Baraga and coming around the bay with a clear blue sky and not seeing a damn bit of smoke coming out of that thing. Those are some of the proudest moments for me when nobody knows that I’m even there. We take great pride in what we’re doing, believe me.”

Huron Bay resident Marcy Cella was pleased with the reports during the meeting, but she still stressed she wanted to see LWEC exceed government-enforced environmental standards.

“Maybe it’s good for the government, and maybe you’re meeting that standard, but is it good for your neighbors?” she said. “When your neighbors are saying, ‘I don’t see anything coming out of the stack, and I see you guys are doing a better job,’ if Jeffery (Loman) is checking it out and saying, ‘I don’t see as much as before,’ that counts.”

Loman also brought up a possible concern about a fire at the L’Anse plant, citing three fires he was aware of at other biomass facilities.

“If we have a fire, we could go out of business. Do we care about fires? Oh yeah,” Richardson said. “Are we going to manage it? Yeah.”

Mark Massicotte from the Baraga County Chamber of Commerce advised meeting with the fire departments to educate them about how to respond to a fire if the worst-case scenario were to happen, which Richardson said was a “good idea.”

Massicotte also noted in response to a Loman claim about a worker’s complaint about the working environment that turnover rate would be much higher among the 15 hourly and three salaried employees at the L’Anse plant if problems were more systemic.

LWEC will continue to host Citizens Advisory Panel meetings quarterly, with attendance on an invitation-only basis, with the next meeting set for 5 p.m. Sept. 10 at the Baraga Lakeside Inn.