Meeting about the MCCo permit to burn coal and gas in University Circle

Principal author:
John L. Clark


The Cleveland Department of Public Health recently held a public hearing to provide information and allow comments about the renewal of The Medical Center Company's permit to pollute from a facility that consumes coal and natural gas, located in University Circle. This article discusses the results of that hearing.

As part of the process to renew their permit to emit pollution due to the burning of coal and natural gas in their University Circle facility, The Medical Center Company (MCCo) was required to offer a public hearing about the permit renewal process. That meeting was held on Tuesday, 2010-08-10 at 1630 at the Martin Luther King, Jr. branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Perhaps 50 or so community members attended the hearing, which started with a presentation about the permit and the permit renewal process, continued with a question and answer session about that presentation, and finished with a period of time allocated to free-form comments from anyone who wanted to give one. Representatives of Beyond Coal (a Sierra Club project), Repower America, and Food Not Bombs were all present, and each commented during the last period. The presentation was informative, if fairly narrow in scope, but commenters broadened the scope of the meeting substantially during the comment period, and were uniformly opposed to continued use of coal; many were opposed to the future operation of the MCCo facility at all.

Cleveland Department of Public Health (CDPH) representative David Hearne revealed some interesting information about the facility during his presentation, and the question and answer session was also informative. The MCCo facility, at 2250 Circle Drive in Cleveland (adjacent to the main CWRU quad, the southside CWRU dorms, University Hospitals, and across from the southern edge of Little Italy—see those two smoke stacks at the bottom right of the image on the MCCo web site?) burns coal and natural gas to provide primarily heating and cooling to “nine institutional customers within University Circle. … The facility’s emissions sources include two coal-fired boilers, five natural gas-fired boilers and five cooling towers.” Apparently, that's the noisy building that I bike by on my way to work.

In 2008, MCCo was the third largest polluter in Cuyahoga County; it was about 7 times smaller than the grand prize winner, ArcelorMittal. We learned that the MCCo facility has emitted roughly 26000 tons of regulated pollutants (referred to in bureaucratic speak as "non-insignificant emissions units") into the atmosphere since it received its last permit in 1999. These pollutants include nitrogen-oxides and particulates, among others, but notably they do not include carbon dioxide. Hearne mentioned that the permit, if granted, would be modified to incorporate CO2 regulations if those end up being required by the EPA in the future. Interestingly, the permit granted in 1999 expired in 2004, and MCCo has been operating under the expired terms of the 1999 permit since then, which is apparently legal. While Hearne responded to one question to indicate that MCCo would not be able to continue to operate if their permit was not renewed, it was not clear what would prevent them from continuing to operate under the expired terms, as they have been doing for 6 years. Another person asked a question about modelling the fallout of airborne pollutants; Hearne said that the EPA requires such modelling to be done when a facility is designed, but since this facility was built in 1932, before EPA regulation was in place, no such modelling has ever been done on this facility. There have been three compliance issues since 1999, and once they were noted they were then corrected “in a timely manner”, but we didn't get a chance to ask how long it took to observe the problems, or how severe the problems were.

In this period of the meeting, the questions were flying thick and fast, but the moderator still cut them off in order to move on to the second part. Perhaps 30 or so questions were accepted before the moderator stopped us. The main point of the public hearing was to provide an airing of issues with respect to the permit itself, but it seems that there is a lack of a public forum for the discussion of other aspects of the facility, the nature of the regulation, or of larger issues such as pollution, global warming, and problems with resource exploitation. This is where the open comment period of the hearing became valuable: any comment was allowed, as long as it wasn't more than 4 minutes long.

Some commenters applauded MCCo for their desire to “go completely coal-free”, while others noted that nothing about the permit requires them to follow through on that desire, and that natural gas has its own problems. Several commenters talked about the risks of health problems due to the kinds of air pollution that the facility emits, some of them from personal experience. I should have testified, but others were covering my main concerns, such as the larger problems of CO2 pollution, global warming, and the environmental effects of exploiting these resources. Commenters said that it is shameful to be causing this pollution so close to the hospital, and that CWRU and University Circle should be providing a model for using clean energy, rather than the current approach. It was not surprising to me that so many community members are unhappy with the idea of such a large source of pollution so close to their homes and workplaces, but it was good to see so many gather to express those concerns (and it would have been better to see even more).

As the news release on the permit renewal indicates, the window for comments on the permit ends next Tuesday, August 17, 2010. That release indicates how to submit your comment. The presentation included David Hearne's email address () and phone number (216-664-2297), but it is not clear if they will accept comments via those channels. Please submit a comment if you feel strongly about the existence of this facility.

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