Even though he lost his first campaign for the Presque Isle Electric and Gas Co-op board of directors last fall, Onaway resident Wayne Vermilya keeps showing up at the tiny utility’s monthly board meetings.
This past spring, he says, he was there to ask a simple question: Is it or is it not true that Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative, which is owned by PIE&G and its sister co-ops, had spent 22 million dollars of members money on the proposed Rogers City coal plant? The question had dogged the co-ops and Wolverine for several years, after research by plant opponents turned up that number.
“I refused to give up, and kept asking them the question,” Mr. Vermilya recalled. “Finally, when they realized I had done a lot of digging, as well, and really knew what I was talking about, Brian Burns, PIE&G’s president and CEO, said, in a very low monotone, ‘Your numbers are correct.’”
It was a small victory in a long campaign by the former Presque Isle County commissioner to convince PIE&G’s board to ask more questions about Wolverine’s proposed multi-billion-dollar plant. The company insists the plant is needed by PIE&G, Cherryland Electric Cooperative, Great Lakes Energy, and HomeWorks TriCounty Electric Cooperative—which sell Wolverine’s power to 225,000 homes and businesses in rural central, west, and northern Lower Michigan.
Now Mr. Vermilya is running for the PIE&G board again, and, as ballots arrive in the September issues of the co-op’s magazine, Country Lines, he took a few minutes off from another evening of campaigning across PIE&G’s sprawling, seven-county service area to answer a few questions himself.
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service: Why are you running again?
Wayne Vermilya: I’ve been to many PIE&G board meetings and I see a lot of potential there. These people are faced with a very big decision about this coal plant. I don’t know what they are told privately by Wolverine, because those are always closed sessions, but I have to wonder if they really understand the magnitude of this proposed $2.5 billion plant. They board members are all wonderful, cordial people, but if this thing happens, it is really going to be pretty serious.
Too many people are afraid to ask legitimate questions, and that is something I can do.
GLBNS: How close was the election last time?
Mr. Vermilya: I got more votes than any other losers, but the winner got about twice what I got—maybe 600, and he got just short of 1,100. So, if everyone who voted for me last time gets one or two more people to vote for me, I can win.
GLBNS: Have you seen much of a shift in attitudes about the plant this past year?
Mr. Vermilya: I don’t know about right here in Presque Isle County, but I have had a lot of offers from people in Cheboygan to work on my campaign. We’ve started these meet-and-greet things at people’s homes. Every time you go there are ten or 12 people who are ready to hand out my flyers to their neighbors. I think the word is getting out on the magnitude of this project.
At some point, we will reach a tipping point in terms of awareness. People in outlying areas, far away from Rogers City, where the plant would be built, didn’t realize it is our co-op that is part of this. For a long time, folks elsewhere saw it as just something going on over in Rogers City. But now more people are paying attention.
So I go around telling people, ‘Look at what the company is saying in Country Lines magazine, look at the numbers they have in there, and look at my information. Shouldn’t you get involved with this?’
GLBNS: What did you think about Ric Evans’ victory in the Great Lakes Energy board election this summer?
Mr. Vermilya: Nothing in politics should ever surprise anyone, but that was big. For an alternative energy guy like that, who is against the coal plant, to get on the board was super. I think Wolverine knows it; the big guys knew right away that was a big deal. I’m really proud of those folks down there.
GLBNS: What happened at the Presque Isle County Planning Commission meeting Monday night [Sept.12], besides approving changes to Wolverine’s special use permit?
Mr. Vermilya: The part that really struck me was that one of the provisions they approved was to have no time limit on the special use permit. When Ken Bradstreet made his presentation for Wolverine, he said he wanted to align the county’s SUP with the state’s air quality and solid waste permits. But then they requested an open-ended permit, even though the air permit expires in 18 months and the landfill permit expires in 12 months. I told one of the planning commission members—she’s a certified planner—that it is just not good community planning, to leave a SUP open ended.
If you were pro-power plant, why wouldn’t you want to put a limit on it, to make sure you are pushing them to get moving? You’ve given them this permit, and if they don’t move forward, you could chase them out of here. Now it’s precedent setting, because you can’t treat people differently. So the county has established that SUPs are open-ended.
That’s just desperate thinking. Some people in Rogers City can’t think rationally about this thing any more because they are so giddy about the coal plant. And this usually is a very rational community, a proud community of very smart and concerned people.
GLBNS: What kind of help are you getting from your supporters this year?
Mr. Vermilya: I keep these campaign flyers at my business and carry them around in my truck and people are always stopping me and asking for some of them and offering to help. There are people going around and putting them in mailboxes and things, but most of them are being handed to people face to face, by neighbors. They are telling their friends, ‘We need to think about this; this guy has some good ideas.’
Last time we didn’t get started early enough to catch the ballots in Country Lines. Those things end up on the coffee table, and people forget to vote. But this year I’m reinforcing the flyers with ads in the paper, on the radio. It is just a much better organized campaign.
GLBNS: Why do you think you’re seeing a change this year?
Mr. Vermilya: People are seeing both sides of this now. You know, like this longtime business friend told me the other day: I want some of those flyers, I’m a hard-core environmentalist, we need to move beyond coal plants. I never knew that about him; I was really surprised.
I have another friend who’s now saying, if the coal plant costs $2.5 billion, this works out to $25 million a job—and he’ll be paying for it in his rates. He’s talking to everybody he sees.
It’s the economic aspect and the environmental impact. More people are realizing that it’s all about the carbon emissions, too. My main thing has always been the mercury emissions, but we are now getting really close to what the world scientific community and computer climate models say is a point of no return. Carbon is really the big, big issue. We have got to get away from it. That is something that takes time for people to understand.
Economically, it comes down to, ‘Can 225,000 customers afford to build a $2 billion coal plant together?’ That is a lot of money for so few customers. You could have a really nice, turnkey, off-the-grid solar power system for that kind of money.
I just hope that people start thinking rationally. We need to take baby steps toward this plant, and question every step. So many people just jumped on the bandwagon without thinking about it.
GLBNS: What do you think of how PIE&G listens to and communicates with its members, who own the company?
Mr. Vermilya: You know, shareholders get just 15 minutes, once a year, at the annual meeting, to bring up things or ask questions. Then it’s door prizes and lunch and everybody goes home.
We don’t have to leave as soon as lunch is over. We are accountable to 35,000 owners, and this is a business meeting. It doesn’t have to be confrontational.
But people say, ‘You are just one person, what can you do?’ If you have a couple people on the board who are just willing to listen, you can do things. There are two on there now that I worked with when we were county commissioners; I know how to work together. You still remain friends in your private life.
We need to know that if people really have a question, they will get an answer without divulging proprietary information. People need assurances that the board isn’t cheating them or misspending their money. But nobody ever raises questions with them.
I will do that. I’ve already been a county commissioner, so there’s no hiding in the bushes for me. People already know where I stand.
Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s managing editor. Reach him at email@example.com.