Thursday, November 8, 2007

Puff puff, pass it on to everyone

I moved to Madison just over seven years ago to attend school and because, after one visit months prior, I had fallen in love with the city. I had come in to see a couple of friends who were attending the UW. They rolled out quite the welcome (really, they would have made great ambassadors): I was picked up at the airport by one friend and her employer, a member of the Onion's AV Club. I'd been reading the Onion for years prior--it had been one of my lifelines while spending my final two years of high school in the middle of Oklahoma--so meeting the people who wrote it was quite the thrill. Our first stop was State St., and the former Onion offices there. After about five minutes of walking around, I was hooked. I had to come to Madison.

Over the years I've come to love the people, the (mostly) progressive politics, the bike paths, the music and theatre scenes, the seasons, and a whole slew of other things that would take too long to enumerate. There are plenty of things to get angry about here, too, don't get me wrong. During my time as a driver for the now defunct Women's Transit Authority, I saw a side of the city that even some of the most well-intentioned politicians simply don't want Isthmus-dwellers to know about.

Still, this is the first city I've ever lived in that really felt like home, like a place worth working to improve.

There has been, however, one big glaring feature on the Madison landscape that I could never quite wrap my head around: the Charter Street Coal-Fired Power Plant. The plant, with its heaps of coal piled along the street, just seemed so incongruous in this city of bikes and trees and environmentalists. A coal plant right in the middle of campus, in the middle of a residential neighborhood? That couldn't be good.

Turns out my hunch was right: the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the UW for the plant, alleging that it failed to meet the standards of the Clean Air Act. Well, lo and behold, a federal judge ruled in their favor and revealed that the plant had failed to meet those standards for at least that past 5 years. He ordered that pollution controls be installed on the plant, which the university claims it will do.

The university will move to improve the plant's environmental performance, increase efficiency in heating and cooling the campus and use more alternative fuels, said Alan Fish, the associate vice chancellor of UW-Madison. But those changes could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.

How is it that the UW, one of the top research university's in the country and part of a city and state that prides itself on environmental stewardship, allowed such an egregious violation to go unaddressed for so long? It shouldn't have taken a lawsuit to kick them into action. This should have been a top priority ever since newer, more effective means of cleaning up coal-fired plants became available.

From an excellent article at WisPolitics:

The Charter Street Power Plant is one of Dane County’s largest sources of soot, smog, mercury, arsenic, and global warming pollution. The specific violations uncovered by the Sierra Club occurred over the last five years and include major repairs and modifications at the facility without notifying the DNR, without obtaining a permit, and without installing modern pollution controls that cut pollution levels by 90%.

This piqued my curiosity, so I started digging around online for any national statistics about the nation's dirtiest power plants. What I found was extremely interesting, even though it didn't involve the Charter St. plant in particular. Wisconsin Electric Power Co. (now known as We Energies) was the recipient of the Governor's Award for Excellence in Environmental Performance back in 2002. Funny this is, though, that WEPC plants show up numerous times on the Environmental Integrity Project's 2007 list of dirtiest plants in the country. Their Pleasant Prairie plant is consistently ranked as one of the worst in the country by this organization's study (the EIP, it should be noted, is a non-partisan, non-profit group made up of former attorneys and officials from the Environmental Protection Agency).

How does that work? All this lip service being paid to environmental protection in the state and so little substance to back it up. It's extremely disheartening and more than a little bit infuriating.

We're long overdue for a serious clean-up. Hopefully this ruling will bring a much-needed spotlight to the issue and prompt more regular citizens and feet-dragging politicians to take the serious and sustained action needed to address the problem. We owe it to ourselves, to our children, and to all generations yet to come. There's no excuse. The technology exists. All that remains to be harnessed is the willpower.

(photo credit:

1 comment:

Dave said...

Hi Emily - I came across your blog this am for the first time,and I'm glad I did. Thoughtful stuff, and you're right on about the Charter St plant. I heard big Al Fish on the radio this morning bemoaning the cost of making the improvements they should have made years ago. Sad, that at this once great University, they don't get it anymore than the rest of the "me-first-i-Need-mine-no-taxes" crowd. Keep on...

The Lost Albatross