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Sierra Club lawsuit threatens university projects

By Paul Snyder

A Sierra Club lawsuit seeking the results of a state review of four campus power plants could be the beginning of a massive drain on the budgets of university building projects.

The Sierra Club wants to know whether projects completed since 1995 at University of Wisconsin System power plants on the campuses of UW-Eau Claire, UW-La Crosse, UW-Stevens Point and UW-Stout are in compliance with the Clean Air Act.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is reviewing the projects but, the Sierra Club argues, has not handed over the results. The lawsuit, filed this week, is an attempt to force the DNR to share the information.

“If they’re still working on it that’s fine, but we want to know what information they have so far,” said Jennifer Feyerherm, an associate regional representative for the Sierra Club.

If those projects are found to be in violation of the Clean Air Act, the Sierra Club could seek court-ordered upgrades or conversions.

That’s what happened before a 2006 lawsuit in which the Sierra Club sued to force the state to upgrade the Charter Street power plant on the UW-Madison campus. The Sierra Club won, and the state is planning a $251 million conversion of the plant from coal to gas.

David Miller, University of Wisconsin System vice president of capital planning and budget, said if the latest lawsuit plays out the same way, state projects could be delayed.

“Money is money,” he said. “We can’t just print it up ourselves, and there’s no separate fund for these kinds of things.”

According to state and federal guidelines, Wisconsin can approve routine maintenance and repair to pre-1995 plant equipment, such as boilers, without seeking clean air permits. But if it can be argued the maintenance made significant changes and could have been done with the best available clean air technology, which is the information the Sierra Club is seeking, there is legal ground for a lawsuit.

The projects on each of the four campuses included burner, boiler and stoker replacements, all of which went forward, the Sierra Club contends, without appropriate permits. The DNR last year began a review of the plants and whether they are in compliance.

But despite filing an open-records request in October, the Sierra Club has received no response.
“All of this seems to have gone into a black hole since July,” Feyerherm said.

DNR Spokeswoman Laurel Steffes said department officials would not comment because they have had not yet seen the lawsuit.

If it turns out the plants at the four campuses have been operating in violation of the Clean Air Act, Miller said, conversions similar to the Charter Street project could be necessary. But the UW System has no idea what those costs would be, he said.

“We’re constantly doing upgrades and repairs,” Miller said, “but we don’t have a major capital project slated for any of those plants.”

Miller said he was told by state staff members the plants are not out of compliance with state or federal laws.

If that’s the case, Feyerherm said, the Sierra Club wants to see the documents that prove it. She said she has no idea what the costs of conversion or bringing the four plants into compliance would be, but she said the law is the law.

“If we’ve got four facilities that are putting out too much pollution, then they should be required to fix that just like any other facility in the state would have to do,” she said. “People in this state have a right to know.”

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