Last Thursday, Michigan State University students and alumni rallied for green jobs, clean energy, and accountability from their University. The rally was organized after a public hearing was held at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment building in downtown Lansing, regarding MSU’s violations of its Renewable Operating Permit for the coal plant that sits on the south side MSU’s campus, and included SO2 and NOX violations.
Last time I posted, I wrote an overarching piece on the situation in Michigan, and the efforts to launch the Define our Decade campaign. We are now two weeks into the campaign and it is clear that we have some really good traction at Michigan State University to make this campaign a reality.
Michigan State University as a Case Study for Define our Decade
Here is what we know about the situation at MSU:
Michigan State owns and operates a campus coal plant providing heat and power to the school.
MSU has a successful sustainability initiative that has started to implement major energy saving programs and installations of renewable energy on campus.
The student body has several campaigns in motion targeting shutting down the coal plant and moving towards a clean energy campus.
As I said earlier the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Environment is seeking to fine MSU for violations at the coal plant on campus. The violations at the coal plant were part of routine self-reporting, and included SO2 emissions that were high enough (7.58%) to be considered a high priority E.P.A. violation. According to MSU Physical Plant Division representatives, the high sulfur dioxide emissions were due to an improper coal blend and high nitrogen oxide emissions were due to burning of wet coal. For the violations the MDNRE proposed a $27,000 penalty settlement unless there was enough public comment to hold a hearing.
So, we requested a hearing.
Why would we do this you might ask? The University is getting fined for emission violations, sounds like a nice slap on the wrist right? Well here was our thinking:
The public needed more time to discuss the situation and the voluntary agreement. The violations had occured all the way back in 2008, MSU actually implemented parts of the agreement before the public (which means students and alumni) had an opportunity to engage in the process.
Remedies in the agreement between MSU and MDNRE didn’t consider alternatives such as stopping coal burning completely, and switching to alternative fuels to achieve lower SO2 and NOX emissions.
The $27,000 fine may not be enough to discourage future violations at the MSU coal fired power plant and we didn’t understand how this number was arrived at. Our thinking was that the $27,000 for the fine should include an equal amount of money for a Supplemental Environmental Project to install renewable energy and energy efficiency options for MSU to replace coal as primary fuel source. This is something encouraged by the E.P.A.
** If you are unfamiliar with Supplemental Environmental Projects, more info can be found: www.epa.gov/oeca/models/. It could be a really great tool for other cases between emission regulation entities and corporations to actually move towards clean energy infrastructure. **
Basically – we were asking that MSU and MDNRE not enter into the consent order so that meaningful discussions on ending potential future violations of the Renewable Operating Permit that come with burning coal.
This strategy was built off of a major coalition of organizations raising support to move away from coal at MSU. Student support for clean energy campaigns had been building for years in Michigan and more intensely around the MSU coal plant over the past 5 months. MSU Greenpeace started running a no coal campaign targetting the on-campus coal plant in September of 2009. Then the Sierra Student Coalition jumped in on the effort, with organizer Monica Embrey on campus since January raising support for MSU Beyond Coal. MSU ECO, the Michigan Student Sustainability Coalition, Global Exchange and Power Shift efforts helped to make sure that these groups were in coordination. Needless to say, the stars aligned around the campaign and over the last week we orchestrated a series of trainings led by research from Global Exchange and the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club. Clean Water Action lended it’s hand in preparing legal support for the case throughout the week of the hearing.
Thursday morning 2/25, it was time for the hearing. 20 students and alumni gathered at 9 in the morning to prep for the hearing. We were prepared, however, the strange part was that we walked into the hearing, and our friends were the target from MSU. They were confused and felt we were attacking them by holding this hearing. In fact, MSU as I mentioned earlier, implemented an impressive sustainability program over the past several years, including installing renewable energy on campus and recently built a multi-million dollar recycling center on campus – which was the result of a very successful student campaign several years ago to make recycling a higher priority at MSU. Nonetheless, we made our case, and the DNRE really liked what we said. The MDNRE Air Quality Division Chief Vinson Hellwig gave a sign of hope when he was quoted by the State News saying – “We don’t usually get comments,” then added, “We’re going to look into some of the good points made today.”
No one from MSU actually testified from the hearing, but several people showed up and witnessed. As I said, some were friends. After the hearing and rally, I went to a coffee shop to wrap up the day, and was contacted by my friend in the sustainability department, who felt betrayed. From her perspective we are attacking an entity doing everything financially feasible to make a more sustainable University. As I mentioned earlier, MSU has an extensive sustainability program underway, and has even been meeting with student groups to discuss opportunities to pursue renewable energy. She offered a chance to meet with anyone we need to on campus to talk about our vision. From her perspective, there just is not enough funding to make the switch to clean energy. She challenged us to see if we can find funding for projects.
Now is the time to deepen our strategy. We clearly don’t need to be painting the University in a bad light because they have a coal plant, we need to get to the point where clean energy is the best option for the University. This may be a difficult task – but what else is Define our Decade about? We need to challenge ourselves to embody the vision we are talking about. We will have much more leverage, respect and influence, with public officials, corporations, and the government, once we show that this clean energy economy we are all talking about is real.
Continue to check back on my future posts to follow the campaign develop out here in Michigan and the Midwest.