You call this clean? 

One of the state’s biggest polluters has been presented with a Clean Corporate Citizen award by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) at a time when ozone pollution levels are climbing to new highs in Northern Michigan.

The Wisconsin Electric Company’s Presque Isle Power Plant in Marquette was granted the CCC award, despite the fact that it emits more than 17,000 tons of nitrous oxide and 16,000 tons of sulfur dioxide each year and is considered one of the worst polluters in the state.

Ironically, the Clean Corporate Citizen award is meant to be a reward for companies that comply with environmental regulations. Receiving the award opens doors for faster permit approvals and regulatory breaks.

"This plant deserves a Clean Corporate Citizen award like Attila the Hun deserved the Nobel Peace Prize," said Rob Perks, the National Field Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The story broke in the organization’s PEEReview, which alleged that the Engler administration fudged the rules: "According to PEER members within DEQ, rules were bent, on orders from the office of Governor John Engler, to give the award to the Presque Isle Power plant which happens to be among the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the Great Lakes region."

DEQ spokesperson Ken Silfven says the allegation that the program rules were bent is "absolutely, unequivocally, untrue."

Silfven says it should come as no surprise that coal-burning power plants emit heavy pollution, but Wisconsin Electric’s plant earned the Clean Corporate Citizen designation for going beyond what is required in terms of taking steps to monitor and control its pollution – something the program is designed to encourage. He says the plant is in compliance with state and federal environmental regulations.

"Wisconsin Electric worked hard to get into the program," he adds.

PEER also claims that the plant "ranks as one of the state’s greatest single sources of particulate matter, emitting hundreds of tons of it into the atmosphere, The smallest and lightest of these particles cause severe, long-term respiratory problems when inhaled."

In fact, pollution from the Presque Isle plant creates a haze over Marquette throughout the year. Fly ash from the plant has also polluted Marquette-area groundwater.

The revelation comes as Northern Michigan faces its own "Phantom Menace" in ozone pollution from industries in Chicago, Muskegon, Milwaukee and Gary.

Ozone is invisible, odorless and hazardous to plants, wildlife and humans. It is created through the reaction of sunlight and high temperatures on industrial gases and auto emissions. It has been a concern across the state. The combination of hot summer weather and auto fumes created by construction slowdowns is pushing up levels.

It’s a particular problem in Northern Michigan: Clouds of pollution from industrial cities are transformed into ozone as they drift over Lake Michigan. It can often be noticed in the mottling effect it has on plant life.

"Because of issues of air transport across the lake, we can have days that exceed health standards, especially for people with respiratory disease, the elderly and children," says Amy Sander, Regional Manager of the American Lung Association of Michigan (ALAM).

The Lung Association monitors ozone pollution in Traverse City, as does the DEQ at a post in Frankfort.

"Last year, we didn’t have any days exceeding health standards," Sander says. "But we’ll probably have a lot of ozone days this summer because it’s going be really hot."

In a recent federal court challenge, a coalition of energy companies and allies overturned Environmental Protection Agency regulations on ozone pollution.

Sander says that trashing the EPA regulations ensures that Northern Michigan will simmer through yet another ozone summer.

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