By Sean Ryan
The Sierra Club’s campaign to challenge coal plants scored another victory in Wisconsin when the federal government wiped out a permit for the Columbia Generating Station.
In this case, what’s good for the Sierra Club is good for the construction industry, said James Gignac, Midwest director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.
“It’s possible one outcome is that coal plants would be required to install pollution control equipment,” he said. “In other cases, where the plants are required to clean, it may make sense to retire that plant and build renewable energy in its place.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday published an order (PDF) requiring the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources revise an air-quality permit for Alliant Energy’s Columbia Generating Station in Pardeeville. The order is in response to a challenge the Sierra Club filed last year.
David Bender, an attorney representing the Sierra Club in the challenge, said one goal of the challenge is to force Alliant to build pollution control equipment at the plant in order to keep the DNR permit.
“The DNR has to determine all over again using correct legislative interpretation whether or not the pollution control has to be put on,” said Bender, of the Madison law firm McGillivray Westerberg & Bender LLC.
Alliant spokesman Steve Schultz said it is hard to predict how the permit revision will affect the Columbia power plant. If pollution control projects are required, they would be paid for through customers’ electricity bills.
He said it’s too soon to say how much those projects would cost and whether they would affect rates.
“It would really depend on what the requirement was,” Schultz said, “and what the controls and what the construction consisted of.”
All Wisconsin power plants require air permits, and those permits must be renewed every five years. There are about 75 power plants in the state, and Gignac said the Sierra Club is monitoring all the permits for coal plants.
“Any time the permits are up for renewal,” he said, “we’ll be taking a look at it.”
The DNR has until late January to revise the permit for the Columbia plant to satisfy the EPA ruling. It is possible the revision will result in mandated pollution control work on the plant, said Andrew Stewart, section chief of the permits and stationary source modeling section in the DNR Bureau of Air Management.
But the permit review has just begun, he said.
“The way we see it, it’s just part of the process,” Stewart said. “Although it is not common to get these, it’s an opportunity for the public to make sure these get done correctly.”
The EPA ruling is the second victory this year for Bender and the Sierra Club. The EPA in June agreed (PDF) with a similar challenge Bender filed in 2007 on behalf of the Sierra Club against the We Energies power plant in Oak Creek.
The DNR is reviewing that air permit and, Stewart said, expects to issue its revision in the next few weeks.
Bender said the EPA decisions could open the door for the Sierra Club to file similar EPA petitions to prompt utilities to replace old units or pay for projects to reduce emissions.
“It corrects a misinterpretation by the DNR, and I don’t know because I haven’t looked,” he said. “I don’t know if DNR has applied the same erroneous interpretation on other permits.”