Jim Dulzo

Milestones: When Coal Was (Almost) King

August 7, 2020 |

Above: Jim Dulzo, who led our efforts to halt coal plants. He’s shown here on a rafting trip along the Colorado River upon his retirement.

In this installment of our 25th anniversary interview series, “Milestones … and Milestones in the Making,” we talk with Jim Dulzo, who was the organization’s driving force in our work to stop the construction of coal plants in Michigan. When Dulzo engaged with partners like the Michigan Sierra Club in coal plant activism, it was 2007 and eight coal-fired power plants were being proposed, many near the shore of a Great Lake or on an important tributary. At the time, Dulzo says, “I was the managing editor and jumped into this because of the urgency. It was definitely a two-job situation for a while!”

Can you recall the event that pulled you into the coal plant activism work?
The dawn of it was a proposed coal plant in Manistee. It was 2007. It was after George W. Bush was re-elected, and his administration held secret meetings about energy, and they decided it was time for a whole new generation of coal plants, and this was part of the fallout. We heard about the Manistee plant from some of our members who lived there.

Can you recall the team’s first action?
There was a public hearing in the Manistee high school gym. We drove down, four or five people from here. Right after that we began reporting on the plant. At first it was Keith Schneider doing the reporting. He worked with Gerard Grabowski, who lived near Manistee. They came up with some amazing facts that contradicted what the developer Tondu was saying. Meanwhile I was reporting on the meetings themselves and the arguments being made.

What was the tone of the Manistee community meetings back then?
There was quite a bit of opposition to the plant. But there were definitely people on Tondu’s side. I’d call them a vocal minority. But there was never any crazy stuff. The meetings went on for more than a year, and there were a lot of drives down there in the winter and coming back at 10:30 at night. I definitely remember that!

So, kind of a classic example of the early approach of the organization—policy mission paired with reporting.
Yes, and the reporting bore some fruit. We were able to demonstrate that Manistee would not get a dime of tax money from the power plant because the developer was planning to build it and then sell it to a tax-exempt municipal energy organization. That put the zoning board in a tough spot. They felt they’d been used. Not long afterward the project collapsed; Tondu cancelled it.

But your coal plant work did not stop there.
Correct. About the time Manistee’s plant was fading, I saw an article in a paper from Presque Isle, on Lake Huron. The story was written like, “Oh boy! A coal plant is coming to Rogers City!” All the infrastructure was in place from the giant limestone quarry there. The freighters could bring in the coal to the existing dock. They could build the plant on the floor of the quarry. The site itself was already scraped bare from mining, so it was a post-industrial landscape. And people were desperate for jobs because the limestone quarry was down to about 10% of what it had been. It was a huge challenge for us to try to stop something proposed for what was a very good site, and for a city that desperately needed a jobs plan. So we each had our challenge—ours was to stop the plant, and theirs to try to rescue the city’s and the region’s economy. Not sure we thought we’d win, but we tried!

Who did you team up with in the Rogers City action?
I would say Sierra Club was the main convenor. Anne Woiwode led it. Endless phone conferences once or twice a week. And Environmental Law and Policy Center got involved and brought their lawyers to bear. A lot of lawyering and hearings and letter writing and showing up and testifying at hearings. All the stuff you do to stop something like that.

Was it hard to say no to Rogers City, given that they needed jobs so badly?
It was difficult. We found ourselves in a room with 300 or 400 people in the bleachers all wearing T-shirts that said, “We love the coal plant!” It was pretty hard to stand in front of them and say we shouldn’t do the coal plant. It almost chokes me up to think that they were never mean to us. It was never what it might have been. I did get letters … I did get phone calls, saying, “We really need these jobs. Stay out of this. You just don’t understand.” I understood it intellectually and I understood the emotional component. But what I really understood was the danger to the planet. Coal plants had to be stopped.

How did the reporting formula play out in the Rogers City case?
Well, first I’d say this was one of the first times I saw the routine dismissal of science, really bumped into it. A denial that climate change was real, that it was a liberal fantasy. If China is building coal plants, why can’t we? All kinds of extraneous arguments that did not have anything to do with science. As for our reporting, we figured how many dump trucks would have to drive down the highway carrying coal ash away, what this would do to the local tourism economy. We looked at how close the school was and what direction the wind would blow the pollution. We questioned how clean it would be—held to existing standards or new standards being developed?

What were you and the partners doing to move the needle in Lansing?
We put a whole bunch of pressure on Governor Granholm, and especially prior to the state of the state address that year, 2009. And she announced a delay on the permitting process. By then, Obama was president, and that delay was just long enough so the new Obama air emissions regulations would come in, and suddenly it got more difficult to meet those standards. Like particulate matter was a real problem. And meanwhile, natural gas got really cheap because of fracking, and utilities were turning to that for base load, not just peak load.

… And eventually you prevailed.
Wolverine Power Cooperative was building it, and their plan was to build it way bigger than needed and have more to sell on the grid. But that became less and less viable. Gradually the business case fell apart as we resisted over the course of three or four years, and they finally gave up in December 2013.

What happened to the other eight coal plants?
Rogers City was the one that got closest to being built of the eight originally proposed, and by the time it was cancelled, the others had pretty much gone away. A big part of it was the market shift and Obama’s clean power plan, which made coal more expensive, and the growing awareness of climate change. That was the last coal plant battle in Michigan that I’m aware of.

What’s an enduring lesson for you from that whole experience?
I learned how to talk in front of a hostile audience. The fact that you had to drive two or three hours to the meetings, just logistically that was very difficult, and then you had this wall of opposition once you got there. It was very tough, a very tough role. I had never done anything like that but I was very confident we were on the right side.