Developers are finalizing the decommissioning of the former B.C. Cobb coal plant in Muskegon as the 115-acre site assumes new ownership and a sole focus as a port terminal facility.
The Cobb plant at the eastern end of Muskegon Lake — built in 1948 and retired in 2016 as part of Consumers Energy’s long-term clean energy plan — was demolished earlier this year after crews systemically tore down its 680-foot smokestack.
The plant also symbolizes a broader shift for the utility industry away from coal, which is forcing communities to consider new uses for the hulking, contaminated structures. Muskegon is among the first along the West Michigan shoreline to grapple with repurposing coal plants, along with Holland, Grand Haven and West Olive.
“It was a very large undertaking to decommission that structure,” said Tom McKittrick, CEO of North Carolina-based Forsite Development Inc.
Consumers paid Forsite $1 million in 2017 to take ownership of key portions of the property and assume cleanup responsibilities, which included a “massive amount of asbestos abatement,” he said. Once decommissioning is finalized this month, Forsite will sell the property to Ferrysburg-based Verplank Dock Co. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Forsite has been scouting retired coal plants across the U.S. for potential redevelopment. McKittrick said the Cobb plant was “clearly one of the larger ones we’ve done. There’s just an absolute abundance of these coal plants shutting down. It’s a fantastic opportunity to repurpose those sites.”
Forsite also decommissioned Consumers’ former J.R. Whiting plant near Monroe and is “heavily marketing” it for redevelopment. Whereas the Cobb site has valuable port access, the Whiting plant is near “massive rail infrastructure” near the interstate.
“It’s another example of repurposing infrastructure to attract industry,” McKittrick said.
Consumers Energy spokesperson Roger Morgenstern said the utility has been “pleased with Forsite’s work on both sites.”
‘Highest and best use’
At the Cobb site, which is situated among wetlands making new construction challenging and cost prohibitive, McKittrick maintains the site is ideal for port activities.
“That entire site is effectively sediment,” he said. “Using it for surface storage, sea containers and higher value products is, I believe, the highest and best use for that site.”
Maintaining it as a port also works toward local officials’ goal to consolidate industrial activities at that end of Muskegon Lake.
Verplank CEO Ron Matthews said the plan is to “immediately activate the dock with construction aggregates, our main line of business.”
He also cited planned investments in Wisconsin to expand operations at Port Milwaukee. Last month, Gov. Tony Evers announced a $4.9 million grant to support a new agricultural commodity bulk vessel facility there. Port Milwaukee’s combined tonnage increased 11 percent in 2019, according to reports.
“Hopefully some cross-lake short-sea shipping will take off as well,” Matthews said.
Verplank acts as a shipping logistics company. Together with The Mart Dock and Port City Marine Services, Verplank operates ports in Holland, Grand Haven, Ferrysburg, Muskegon and Manistee as the West Michigan Port Operators. Verplank has leased dock space since 1989 at the Cobb site, which Matthews said is the deepest and longest dock in West Michigan.
He hopes to consolidate some of the aggregate handling at docks elsewhere on Muskegon Lake to the Cobb site where it’s closer to the highway.
Developers and local officials also have maintained that the Muskegon port can support agricultural processing and shipping.
“There’s an abundance of Michigan agricultural products shipped out of the state to be processed,” McKittrick said, adding that the city’s “heavily underutilized” wastewater treatment capacity supports agribusinesses. “Muskegon is in a unique position.”
Although the generating plant is gone, an important electricity substation remains at the Cobb site that distributes power and controls power voltage across the region. Forsite owns that land, but the substation and equipment is owned by Consumers and transmission operator ITC.
Consumers will retain ownership of about 60 acres east of the former plant that is capped and stores fly ash produced while the plant was operating. The property was capped in the early 2000s, but redevelopment plans there never came to fruition.
Consumers also has plans to close eight smaller bottom ash ponds that were not part of the Cobb property sale. The bottom ash will be transported to a Consumers landfill near Saginaw.
McKittrick said assuming ownership of the coal ash sites would likely have been “very complex and very expensive,” particularly given uncertainty around federal coal ash regulations.
Despite the site’s electricity infrastructure and vacant coal ash storage sites, it’s unclear whether future renewable energy generation — such as solar power — could be built there.
Morgenstern said the eastern property has land use restrictions based on its former use as a landfill, and any redevelopment would require state approval. The property also can’t be used for future fossil fuel generation, “but there are no prohibitions on renewable energy generation,” Morgenstern said. “No alternative uses are proposed at this time.”