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April 25, 2011

Tribal Leader Urges Stronger EPA Regulation of Coal-Fired Power Plants

Lee-Sprague

"Our relatives have always eaten fish," says Lee Sprague, a member of the Tribal Council of the Little River Band of Ottowa Indians in Manistee, Michigan, in an April 21 op-ed in the Muskegon Chronicle. "When I was young, it was taught to me that you always eat what you catch. This teaching has been with our peoples since time immemorial."

But with the development of coal-fired power plants, mercury has found its way into Michigan's water systems and into the fish. "Now when my youngest son catches a fish," Sprague says, "I cannot feed him the fish that he caught because it may have mercury in it. My three daughters, two of whom are now of childbearing age, cannot eat the fish in Michigan without endangering the life of future generations. This contradicts what our elders have always taught us to do."

Tribal-activist-Lee-Sprague

"Thankfully," he says, "there may be a solution. This month, the U.S. EPA proposed a long-overdue update to the Clean Air Act that will strengthen public health protections from coal-fired power plants." But forces are at work to undermine the EPA's authority to issue these rules.

"We need the EPA's strong new protections from toxic mercury so we can all reduce mercury levels quickly and decisively for future generations," says Sprague, whose column also ran on the Native News Network's website on Earth Day. The EPA is holding public hearings on their proposed mercury and air toxics standards on May 24 in Chicago and Philadelphia and May 26 in Atlanta.

[See bottom of post for specifics on EPA hearings.]

A former Beyond Coal organizer with the Sierra Club and still a volunteer with the Club's Michigan Chapter, Sprague was a leader in a successful campaign to stop a new coal plant from being built in Manistee in 2005. But every day he and his children see the existing TES Filer coal plant in nearby Filer City, less than five miles away on the shores of Lake Manistee.

"My children and community live in its shadow," he says. "Piles of coal are on the shoreline of Manistee Lake, which drains into Lake Michigan. We are under current threat from coal ash waste contaminating water supplies in an area considered to be one of the top ten freshwater fisheries in the continental U.S."

That's Sprague, below, with Michigan Chapter Director Ann Woiwode and Club organizers Jan O'Connell and Tiffany Hartung.

Michigan-Beyond-Coal-team

"Lee created a character he called the Coal Baron," says Hartung. "He wore a top hat and a tuxedo and showed up at events telling Michiganders to keeping sending all our money and jobs out of state to him."

The-Coal-Baron

At a 2009 Rally for Clean Energy in Lansing, Sprague set up a coal baron dunk tank, below right, and clean energy supporters lined up to dunk the baron.

Lee-Sprague-Coal-Baron

In 2007, Houston-based Tondu Corporation proposed converting its 60-megawatt coal plant in Filer City to a 180-megawatt integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant. In order to make the $300 million project economically feasible, Tondu requested millions of dollars in tax breaks from state and local governments.

But largely in response to the Sierra Club's call for a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in Michigan, in 2009 then-Governor Granholm ordered a halt to the permitting process for seven proposed plants in the state. Sprague was among the Sierra Club's leading voices in that campaign. Below, Sprague speaking at Michigan Power Shift in 2009. [Click on the image to watch the video.]

Lee-Sprague-at-Power-Shift

Still, the TES Filer City plant continues to operate, and the impact of its pollution, including toxic mercury, falls heavily on Native residents due to their traditional heavy reliance on fish.

"Mercury pollution is a threat to all of us in Michigan," Sprague says, "but my tribe's traditional lifeways result in increased exposure to coal-fired power plant contaminations in the air, water, and land. According to the EPA, 15.5 percent of white women of childbearing age have blood mercury levels above the health guideline, compared to 31.5 percent of Native women of childbearing age."

Coal-Baron-and-supporter

Learn more about the connection between coal and mercury, and what the Sierra Club is doing with tribal partners to help move America beyond coal.

EPA Hearings
The EPA will hold three public hearings on the proposed mercury and air toxics standards signed on March 16, 2011. Each hearing will begin at 9:00 a.m. and continue until 8:00 p.m. (local time). The public may preregister to speak at the hearings at a specific time. People also may register in person on the day of the hearing, and will be worked in to openings in the schedule of speakers.

To preregister to speak at the hearings, please contact Ms. Pamela Garrett, telephone 919-541-7966 or email garrett.pamela@epa.gov.

May 24: Chicago, Ill.
Crowne Plaza Chicago Metro
799 West Madison Street 
Chicago, Ill. 60611
Preregistration deadline 5 p.m., May 19

May 24: Philadelphia, Pa.
Westin Philadelphia
99 South 17th Street at Liberty Place
Philadelphia, Pa. 19103
Preregistration deadline 5 p.m., May 19

May 26: Atlanta, Ga.
Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Center
61 Forsyth Street SW
Atlanta, Ga. 30303-8960
Preregistration deadline 5 p.m., May 23

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