DTE Energy: Black Soot Irks Residents of Cassville, Wisconsin

- by Jeff Montgomery, March 22, 2014. Source: THOnline.com

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"168","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"225","style":"width: 333px; height: 266px; float: left; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px;","title":"Photo: THOnline.com","width":"300"}}]]CASSVILLE, Wis. - Linda Hulst said she began noticing the soot shortly after a nearby biomass plant started operations.

For three years, the black, charcoal-like matter has sprinkled her property. "Every fresh snow is covered with it," she said. "It gets on our deck, on our furniture, on the hoods of our cars."

Hulst and her husband, Ron, have owned and operated Eagles Roost Resort since 1977. They also make their home on the property, 1034 Jack Oak Road.

Hulst said she is certain that the soot-like substance results from processes occurring at DTE Energy's Stoneman Station biomass plant, 716 Jack Oak Road.

Her sense of certainty, however, is not shared by company officials.

Randi Berris, a spokesperson for DTE Energy, acknowledged residents' concerns about the plant, but she said the source of the substance remains unknown.

"We are investigating the soot complaints, but do not have any indication that it has originated at our facility," Berris said. She added that there are a number of things in the Cassville area, other than the plant, that might be producing the substance.

"You get lots of people using wood-burning stoves. There are dozens of trains that run through the area," she said. "It could even be from agriculture."

For many residents, however, the arrival of the plant timed with the appearance of the soot is more than a coincidence.

DTE Energy purchased the Cassville power plant, long known as Stoneman Station, in 2009 and officially began commercial operations in October 2010.

Before that, Stoneman Station was a coal-burning facility. In 2009-10, DTE Energy Services converted it into a renewable-energy facility that, according to plant manager James Richardson, produces 40 megawatts of electricity a day - enough to serve nearly 30,000 homes.

To produce electricity, the plant each day burns 10,000 tons of wood waste that comes from many sources, including railroad ties.

Richardson stressed that numerous precautions are taken to ensure the cleanliness of these materials.

"When it comes to our facility, all the material gets screened and goes through a chemical analysis so we know what is going into the boilers," Richardson said. "We don't want to introduce anything with toxicity that could be a hazard to ourselves or our facility."

Richardson also stressed that the company is currently in full compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Natural Resources.

That has not always been the case, however.

Last June 4, DTE Energy was ordered to pay $150,000 in forfeitures, fees and costs to the state of Wisconsin.

The complaint against DTE cited the company's inability to control particulate matter emissions.  In response, DTE made operational changes and mechanical enhancements to improve its fugitive- dust-control program and upgrade its particulate-matter emission controls.

In terms of neighbors' concerns, Richardson said he was first made aware of complaints regarding the black soot on Jan. 7. However, Village President Keevin Williams said concerns surfaced much earlier.

"Within the first year of operation, that is when the complaints started," Williams said. "The citizens that live nearby complained about problems from the very beginning."

Williams noted that the issue was frequently raised at village board meetings, during which representatives from the Department of Natural Resources often were present. During meetings last summer, Williams recalled, some residents complained that the soot was appearing on clothing that had been hung outside to dry.

Williams said that the board doesn't have the power or money to do much about it.

"Our hands are tied," he said. "There is nothing we can do except to keep relaying the concerns to regulators here in Wisconsin ... the DNR and the EPA, they are the ones that monitor that."

Several efforts on Thursday and Friday to secure comment from the DNR were unsuccessful.

Cassville resident Ruth Adrian, who lives on Main Street, said something needs to change. She said the soot-like substance has appeared on her property countless times.

On one occasion, she collected a section of stained snow from her yard and placed it in her freezer to preserve the evidence.

She has phoned the EPA and raised concerns at several village board meetings before finally growing discouraged. "We finally quit going to village board meetings because no one would help us," she said.

DTE officials said that further analysis of their equipment will be conducted this fall.

"While we don't know whether (the substance in question) came from our facility, there is some work that will be done during our regular maintenance outage in September," Berris said.

Leaders in Cassville, meanwhile, will continue to hope for a positive resolution.

"We are not against this plant," Williams said. "It creates jobs and adds to the tax base and those are pluses. A lot of the citizens here just were not aware that there were going to be these types of concerns."