From WisconsinWatch.org:

In 1956, 17-year-old Janis Schreiber moved to this tiny city on the Mississippi River, married and settled downtown to raise a family. Several times a week she drove her three children to the countryside to escape what she called the “dirty mess” — the coal-fired power plant in Alma and the black soot that hung over Main Street like fog.

Now, half a century later, the sky is clearer. Schreiber and other residents can hang laundry outside without it turning black. Dairyland Power Cooperative, which owns Alma’s two coal-fired plants, is investing $400 million in pollution controls.

Dairyland and other Wisconsin coal-fired plants have begun lowering emissions, but not necessarily in response to demands by regulators at the federal Environmental Protection Agency or state Department of Natural Resources.

Many of the changes have resulted from pressure and lawsuits brought by the nonprofit Sierra Club, which has campaigned for a decade to cut emissions from coal combustion.

Some polluters in Wisconsin and nationwide have violated clean-air laws for years but faced no enforcement from state or federal agencies, according to a collaborative investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News, National Public Radio and other nonprofit investigative news organizations across the country.

In addition, enforcement actions are inconsistent. The Wisconsin Center found three coal-fired plants in Wisconsin at which federal regulators allege violations of the Clean Air Act but state regulators do not.

The EPA lists nine coal-fired power plants in Wisconsin as being “high-priority violators” of the Clean Air Act — sites that regulators believe are in urgent need of attention, where violations may have continued for years. But the DNR and EPA have yet to take formal enforcement action against five of these plants, records show.

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency is involved in enforcement actions at nine coal-fired plants in Wisconsin for alleged violations but declined to name them.

“There is a pattern of companies ignoring this (clean air) law,” said Kim Bro, a Washburn, Wis., environmental scientist and former state health official. “They’re trying to stay under the radar, and if the DNR and EPA are failing to enforce, the public suffers.”

Dairyland is not on the EPA high-priority violators list. In its most recent inspection, the DNR found no violations at the Alma facilities.

Yet in 2010, the Sierra Club sued the La Crosse-based company for alleged Clean Air Act violations. The suit charged that Dairyland failed to install modern pollution controls required by federal law when it made a series of major changes between 1993 and 2009 to its plants at Alma and Genoa, about 70 miles south of Alma on the Mississippi River. As a result, the suit said, Dairyland released unlawful amounts of pollution into the air.

The complaint also alleged Dairyland did not conduct required monitoring or get permits from the DNR during the upgrades.

When the lawsuit was filed in June 2010, the Sierra Club noted that the state agency still had taken no enforcement action for the alleged violations.

In an interview last month, Marty Sellers, the DNR engineer who inspects the plant, echoed the sentiments of other DNR officials in saying his agency lacks the staff and funding to fully enforce air-pollution laws. He said the DNR couldn’t afford to install an air-quality monitor in Alma, which one resident requested in 2006.

Dairyland spokeswoman Deb Mirasola defended the company’s actions, saying in a statement, “We remain firm in our belief that we operated our plants in compliance with state and federal regulations, including the provisions of the Clean Air Act.”

The utility company, the EPA and the Sierra Club are now negotiating a possible out-of-court settlement, said Bruce Nilles, senior director of the national Sierra Club anti-coal campaign.

In recent years, according to DNR data, emissions of some pollutants from the two Alma plants 190 miles northwest of Madison have fallen by 73 percent. Mirasola said this was due to pollution controls, adding that the upgrades will help the plants comply with state and federal environmental laws. Dairyland, she said, began retrofitting its plants with pollution controls in 2007, three years prior to the Sierra Club lawsuit.

So why did the group sue Dairyland, which already was spending hundreds of millions to clean up? In part, said the Sierra Club’s Jennifer Feyerherm, it’s to make up for years when the air around Alma should have been cleaner.

“It’s not like we’re singling out Dairyland,” said Feyerherm, an organizing representative with the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter. “They didn’t put on pollution controls when they should have … It’s part of the pattern of noncompliance that we see at coal plants across the state.”

More.

Advertisements