ALMA — 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.”
In 2001, frustrated with the lack of action from state and federal regulators, the Sierra Club launched its national Beyond Coal Campaign to reduce emissions and halt new coal-burning plants, which the group cites as the single largest source of global warming and mercury pollution in the United States. The Sierra Club says it has worked with activists and other organizations to prevent the construction of 154 proposed coal-fired plants nationwide.
The effort has had dramatic effects in Wisconsin. The Sierra Club has filed lawsuits against about half of the state’s coal-burning electrical generating stations to force them to reduce harmful emissions. Two plants and two coal-fired boilers were shut down, the University of Wisconsin-Madison was persuaded not to build a new coal boiler and one proposed plant was blocked, Nilles said.
The latter was a bid by Madison-based Alliant Energy to build a $1.26 billion coal-fired facility in Cassville. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities operating in the state, rejected the proposal in 2008.
A 2007 Sierra Club federal lawsuit against the state also compelled Wisconsin to reduce emissions or convert the UW-Madison’s Charter Street Power Plant and the state’s century-old Capitol Heat and Power Plant to cleaner options, such as natural gas. Former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration promised to study ways to lower emissions at the state’s 15 coal-burning plants at UW campuses, prisons and other state buildings, resulting in the retrofit or shuttering of some of the facilities.
But Nilles said that effort “has ground to a halt” under Republican Gov. Scott Walker. He said the Sierra Club plans to return to U.S. District Court in Madison to seek enforcement of the settlement that called for the state to study its coal-burning facilities, and to close plants in violation or convert them to cleaner burning fuels.
A spokesman for the Department of Administration, which operates the state’s coal-fired plants, said the agency believes it is in full compliance with the requirements of the settlement.
“Sierra Club recently contacted the department and requested that we engage in discussions about the lawsuit,” Tim Lundquist said. “We are doing so.”
William Skewes, executive director of the Wisconsin Utilities Association, a nonprofit that lobbies on behalf of the state’s investor-owned utilities, said he couldn’t comment on the Sierra Club’s lawsuits against Wisconsin power plants. “We try to let the companies speak for themselves,” he said.
The state DNR lists coal-fired facilities as the state’s top emitters of mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter — hazardous chemicals that major studies have linked to increased mortality and maladies ranging from lung cancer to birth defects. They also are the leading source of the mercury that contaminates fish in every lake in the state, according to the DNR.
Coal-fired power plants also emit particulates, a mixture of dust, soot, smoke and droplets that contains several known carcinogens, including arsenic and radium. The smallest particles, called PM 2.5, are less than one-thirtieth the width of a human hair — so tiny that they can embed in lungs and pass through the bloodstream, causing asthma, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, heart attacks and strokes.
According to a 2010 study by the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, every year in the United States, emissions from Wisconsin power plants cause about 268 deaths, 201 hospital admissions and 456 heart attacks. Other studies suggest pollution from coal combustion can cause serious health problems even in areas like Alma that meet federal air-quality standards.
In interviews, residents of this Buffalo County city of 781 named several long-time neighbors who, although they had never smoked, had developed lung cancer or emphysema, a lung disease that causes coughing and shortness of breath.
“There are a lot of medical issues for a little town like Alma,” said Schreiber, 72, who has breast cancer. Her husband, a nonsmoker, suffered from emphysema before dying in 2006 at age 80.
Schreiber and others in Alma said they couldn’t prove the Dairyland plants had caused their health problems. But as they ticked off the types of cancers afflicting their neighbors — uterine, cervical, colon, prostate, ovarian, kidney — they wondered.
“I think some people have gotten sick over it, and probably died sooner than they should have, because of the smoke and the air quality,” Schreiber said.
Dairyland’s Mirasola said the company hasn’t been informed of any specific health issues of Alma residents, and isn’t aware of health effects in the city related to its operations.
Janice Nolen, a vice president at the American Lung Association in Washington, D.C., said the health concerns of residents living near coal-fired plants are well-founded.
“We have very good evidence that this kind of pollution really does shorten lives,” Nolen said. She cited a landmark 1993 study, in which Harvard University researchers observed pollution patterns and death rates in six U.S. cities for 13 years. Even after controlling for other risk factors, such as smoking, the study found that mortality rates were higher in cities with more particulate pollution.
“There are real health harms that come from these emissions,” Nolen said. “They affect lots of downwind communities, including places you might not think would be affected.”
Carolyn Dry, 69, lives in Winona, Minn., 34 miles south of Alma. She said she’s surrounded by neighbors who have cancer and wonders if Dairyland pollution is partly to blame.
In 2006, Dry emailed the DNR about Dairyland’s visible emissions, describing a layer of dust on her house. “I am aware that this fly ash has heavy metals (and) mercury, another toxin,” she wrote. “We request that all possible pressure and measures be applied to improve and remedy this situation.”
A week later, a DNR engineer who oversees Dairyland’s compliance with state air pollution rules emailed her information about plans for future pollution control upgrades.
He noted that although the Alma facilities were compliant with state regulations, “(they) do emit a relatively large amount of some pollutants to the ambient air.”
In 2008, Schreiber contacted the DNR about black ash blowing from Dairyland’s coal pile onto her porch. An agency official visited and told her the company was already upgrading its pollution controls. Since then, Schreiber said, the air has been better.
Dry and Schreiber’s complaints against Dairyland are two of eight filed with the DNR since 2002, according to agency records. Schreiber and others in Alma said few people publicly voice their concerns about the city’s air quality, since many Alma residents are or were Dairyland employees.
In the past three years, Schreiber has noticed less black ash on her house and car. In Winona, however, Dry said the air quality remains poor.
“It did improve slightly,” she said. “But that was like going from awful to not quite as awful.”
Old plants, new pollution controls
Old coal-fired plants like Dairyland’s Alma Station, which dates to 1947, are among the leading contributors to hazardous airborne chemicals in Wisconsin, according to 2010 DNR emissions data. The agency reports that these facilities, even when retrofitted with more modern pollution controls, pump thousands of tons of heavy metals including mercury, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide into the air every year.
Pollution controls do help curb emissions, and some Wisconsin utilities are spending hundreds of millions to upgrade decades-old power plants. Dairyland and Madison-based Alliant Energy are retrofitting their facilities with several types of pollution controls, including coal ash filters, called “baghouses,” which reduce particulate matter, as well as scrubbers, systems that reduce sulfur dioxide emissions.
Upgrades at Dairyland’s facilities will reduce sulfur dioxide pollution by more than 90 percent, said Mirasola, the company spokeswoman.
But some Wisconsin environmental groups say these companies aren’t doing enough. In the past five years, the Sierra Club has sued Dairyland, Alliant and the Green Bay utility Wisconsin Public Service Corp., alleging the companies have been repairing old equipment and increasing emissions for years without installing the most up-to-date pollution controls, as required by a 1977 Clean Air Act amendment.
“Older plants tend to have the fewest pollution controls, and as a result have more emissions per amount of electricity generated than a newer plant,” said David MacIntosh, a Harvard University adjunct associate professor of environmental health. “That’s one reason, from a public health perspective, why it’s important to focus on these older plants.”
But utilities don’t always notify regulators — as required by law — about projects that warrant pollution control upgrades. To avoid paying millions for baghouses or scrubbers, companies sometimes try to pass off a major renovation as a small tweak, said George Meyer, former DNR secretary. Meyer is now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
“You don’t build a power plant in 1970 and then, 25 years later, when you’ve exchanged all the parts, call that ‘maintenance,’ ” he said.
Even when retrofitted plants don’t violate regulations, many still emit what some scientists say are unhealthy amounts of air pollution.
Nitrogen oxide emissions from coal combustion contribute to ground-level ozone, the main component of smog, which studies have linked to respiratory illness and premature death. In 2008, the EPA’s scientific advisory panel recommended the agency strengthen federal limits for ground-level ozone to reduce smog. Doing so, the EPA said, would save up to 12,000 lives every year and prevent 58,000 asthma attacks and 21,000 hospital visits.
The new limits would have forced some coal-fired power plants to curb emissions. But in September of this year, President Obama announced he would wait until 2013 to review the EPA’s recommendation, saying lowering smog standards now would introduce too much “regulatory uncertainty.”
Who’s right — Sierra Club or regulators?
Noncompliance with environmental regulations is often a matter of interpretation.
Cases in point: The Columbia Energy Center in Pardeeville, the Nelson Dewey Generating Station in Cassville and the Edgewater Generating Station in Sheboygan, all owned by Wisconsin Power & Light, a subsidiary of Alliant.
In September 2010, Sierra Club sued Alliant, alleging it modified the Columbia and Nelson Dewey plants without installing the best available pollution controls. In a separate suit, Sierra Club alleged the company violated visible emissions limits at its Edgewater plant. Alliant has denied the allegations.
“We maintain that we are in compliance with our permits, and any work we have done has been properly permitted,” company spokesman Steven Schultz said.
Schultz added that Alliant is currently installing controls at Edgewater that will reduce nitrogen oxides emissions and plans to begin retrofitting the Columbia plant with pollution controls in 2012 to comply with stricter mercury and sulfur dioxide limits. Alliant, the Sierra Club and the EPA are in settlement talks, Nilles of the Sierra Club said. Schultz said Alliant doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
The Columbia, Nelson Dewey and Edgewater plants also appear on the EPA’s list of high-priority violators of the Clean Air Act. Yet the DNR has found all three facilities fully compliant in its two most recent inspections.
“EPA seems to be looking at a specific issue in more depth than what DNR would normally be able to do during our inspections,” said Bill Baumann, acting director of the DNR air management bureau, when asked to explain why the EPA would list the plants as violators when the DNR does not.
Underfunded, DNR triages oversight
In Wisconsin, the DNR and EPA are supposed to enforce state and federal air pollution laws. The DNR issues air pollution permits, inspects facilities and is responsible for discovering violations. The agency refers enforcement cases to the state Department of Justice for litigation. The EPA, meanwhile, conducts its own inspections and enforcement, often in response to chronic or more serious violations.
Baumann said although the two agencies may share information about inspections and enforcement, they rarely do, and he doesn’t recall ever asking the EPA for data about Wisconsin facilities.
That might help explain the discrepancies between the EPA and DNR’s inspections. Records and interviews also indicate that dwindling resources are undermining the DNR’s ability to enforce regulations and prosecute air pollution violators.
Wisconsin doesn’t receive federal funding to enforce air pollution laws. To fund enforcement, it relies on fees collected based on a permit holder’s level of emissions, Baumann said.
As the economy falters, he said, production and emissions decline, and the fees DNR collects decrease. Baumann said a shrinking budget and a record number of retirements mean less oversight.
“We’re doing the best that we can,” Baumann added, noting that the statewide air management program has more than a 25 percent staff vacancy rate. “We don’t have the wherewithal to go after every single violation we find. We try and focus on what has the most environmental impact.”
Sellers, the DNR engineer who inspects Dairyland’s Alma plants, put it more bluntly: “We’re just broke, even though everyone at DNR is retiring.”
But problems at the DNR predate the recession. In 2004, the Legislative Audit Bureau evaluated DNR’s air management programs and found that the agency had a backlog of more than 1,000 facilities awaiting operation permits.
What’s more, 15 percent of facilities had never been inspected. The bureau reported that the DNR did not “consistently follow federal policy in taking enforcement actions for high-priority violations.”
Baumann said the problems have been corrected, noting that the EPA now approves an annual DNR list of which plants are in compliance.
Baumann estimated that about 20 percent of Wisconsin’s air pollution permit holders aren’t complying with state laws. He said, however, that few of these violators are coal-fired plants, and most aren’t committing emissions violations, but are noncompliant for other reasons, such as filing a report late.
“It’s like the police,” Baumann said. “They don’t have the resources to stop every speeder on the road. If somebody is a mile or two over the limit for a short distance, well, there are bigger issues to deal with.”
The Madison law firm of McGillivray Westerberg & Bender LLC, which provides pro bono legal services to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, represents the Sierra Club in lawsuits against owners of coal-fired power plants and agencies that perform permitting for coal-fired power plants. The law firm did not provide the Center with legal services or participate in the writing or editing of this report.