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Sierra Club looks to snuff out coal

By Sean Ryan
[email protected]

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.”


  1. Fire up the nukes.

  2. Apparently the people at the Sierra club, have more money than they know what to do with. They must be so proud in succeeding to drive up rates for everyone with this latest “win” against coal….one of the most efficient, cheapest, and by far the most abundant natural resource God has given us, and we take it off the table. Instead of continuing to develop clean coal technology, we’d rather put up inefficient wind mills, and solar panels in area’s where it’s dark 15 hours a day for over half the year.
    Nice job Sierra club…..nice. And all this increase in rates accomplished without the help of Government….just wait till congress pushes through cap and trade.

  3. When T.E.A. describes coal as a ‘cheap’ energy source, has he factored in the cost of unpriced externalities from environmental degradation? Has he assessed long term economic impacts, such as for mountaintop removal? Has he considered the loss of groundwater forever through overpumping and polluting acquifers? Is he saying that all issues depend on short-term pricing in unregulated markets, i.e. simply, ‘Cheap is good.” Or is he just pulling your leg? He’s correct that there isn’t enough timely wind or solar to replace our dependency on coal. But, what’s is point? That we should just happily slop around in the cesspool we’ve created, or get hussling on developing new energy use as well as production and delivery infrastructures?

  4. Hugh, here are your answers:
    Yes; ‘environmental degradation?’ a bit over the top, and melo-dramatic but still, yes, when compared to other energy sources, the cost-benefits are far more favorable, not even close actually.
    Yes; the infrastructure is already in place. You speak as though coal is some new thing and we’d have to start from square one to get it. It’s there, it’s accessed, we’ve used it for over a hundred years, and there’s lot’s of it, we simply need to continue development of the ‘cleaner burning’ technology.
    Yes; The ground water re-filters through the ground, as it has for thousands of years, in a natural purification process. You act like water pumped out, and used by man is spoiled and becomes no good…ever…that’s simply not the case. If that were true, with all the mound systems, sewage water use, and industrial water useage, we would have run out of useable water hundreds of years ago. Let’s not forget…coal is a Natural Resource, it’s NOT some toxic poison. Incidently, if you’re so opposed to pumping out ground water…well, no more natural gas for you! That is a requirement to get that as well.
    No; There is a difference between cheap and economical. Wind and solar is neither.
    The point is, it is foolish to want to “snuff out” coal energy, rather than improving on it’s methods of burning. That’s all I’m saying, and it is just that simple…Why the eagerness to ‘snuff it out?” That makes NO sense. Just the same way that it’s foolish to scrap the entire healthcare system for it’s flaws, or to junk your car when it just needs a tune-up. But that is logic, and that is hard for the sierra club, as they are driven by emotions. Common sense and logic are foreign territories. Besides, it ‘feels good’ if we could just end the dirty coal industry, and operate on ‘renewable’ clean energy. Yes, it really does sound wonderful…if only it worked that way…in the real world.
    By the way, if you think wind is the “long-term” answer, you’re sadly mistaken. It may do fine job pushing a sailboat around the lake on a summer weekend, but the turbines that it drives, the gear reduction drive units, the variable pitch prop blades, all the mechanisms needed to properly function, are a whole different animal. The maintenence and upkeep is off the charts. Even a simple repair involves a very limited number of people, almost olympic – caliber athletes are required to be able to climb 300 feet up and down a ladder, several times a day, with their tools, and parts, with the knowledge to fix the problem. And not be subject to the ‘air-sickness’ and nausea that comes from the back and forth swaying of these towers up at the top. That limited craftsmans service costs over $300 per hour! This is one reason that when you see wind farms over five years old, only about 60% of the turbines are running. The others are waiting for funds and/or service people to get to them. I would much rather improve the ‘cesspool’ of current coal useage, than create a new monstrocity ‘cesspool’ of wind mills, miles of buried wires that contribute to stray voltage problems, or solar panels, covering acre upon acre of valuable land.
    I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t know all the answers…But…I know we can’t afford that!

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