Madison might be Wisconsin’s progressive base, but that does not prevent it from allowing MG&E to continue as one of the state’s worst air polluters.
Airing out a myth
Rebecca Wolfson and
Five prominent features accent Madison’s skyline- the state Capitol and the four smokestacks that loom over Lake Monona from Madison’s east side. Every so often the stacks huff and puff and emit a black plume. In response to citizen outcry that blight on Madison’s skyline may soon be no more.
Madison is a progressive city where the leaders are concerned with the citizens’ safety. Of course, we assume, the coal plant in the middle of town has scrubbers or pollution controls. Such assumptions, however, could be hazardous to your health.
For a “progressive” town, Madison’s air, in fact, is quite a lot less clean than one would think. A UW Population Health Institute report ranked Dane County 65th in the state for its air quality index, out of 72 counties. In 2005, the state Department of Natural Resources issued seven health advisories for Dane County because of dangerous levels of air pollution. People with asthma and other health problems were advised to stay inside and refrain from strenuous physical activity because the air was unhealthy to breathe.
Because of the DNR’s 2004 air emissions survey, we know the largest single source of Dane County’s air pollution is Madison Gas & Electric’s Blount Street station. We also know that modern pollution controls can cut the plant’s emissions by more than 90 percent. The plant, however, has no pollution controls; no scrubbers. As a result, it pollutes with sulfur dioxide, an asthma-causing pollutant, at a higher rate than any other coal plant in the state; a rate that is twice the national average, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA also says that sulfur dioxide causes asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and acid rain.
The DNR also ranks MG&E’s Blount Street power plant as its county’s largest source of mercury. In 2004, it emitted 17 pounds of mercury. One of the most dangerous toxins coming from coal-fired power plants, mercury causes brain damage for adults and children alike. Airborne mercury, of which power plants are the largest contributor, has so contaminated Dane County’s lakes that the DNR has issued fish-consumption advisories warning against eating the fish.
When Congress passed the 1970 federal Clean Air Act, the strategy for cleaning our air was to require all new power plants to install modern pollution controls and to require all existing power plants to install such controls when they modernized. At that time everyone assumed old coal plants would modernize within a decade or two.
MG&E, however, has skirted its clean-up obligations for three decades. It has never installed modern pollution controls because, it argues, it has never modernized and therefore never triggered the obligation to clean up. It has maintained its ability to pollute at such high levels because it has purchased pollution credits from other companies in the United States whose emissions are below the maximum allowable. In essence, we are bearing the health costs while some other community somewhere in the United States has cleaned up its power plant. This has to stop.
MG&E does not dispute that its Blount Street power plant is old, inefficient and dirty. And, just across town on the UW campus, MG&E recently completed construction on the cleanest fossil-fueled power plant in Wisconsin. This state-of-the-art facility emits no mercury and less than 1 percent of the sulfur dioxide and one-half of the global warming pollution coming from the aged Blount Street power plant. This is the difference between 19th century and 21st century technology.
In response to public concerns, MG&E says it is going to announce steps to clean up its power plant in March of 2006. That is great news. Replacing the 103-year old Blount Street power plant with a state-of-the-art power plant presents an exciting step forward in the redevelopment of downtown Madison. This area has plans for a new central park and new pedestrian-friendly housing and commercial development. With all of this new development in the works it cannot come too soon for MG&E to end it polluting practices and showcase to other utilities how to be a clean energy leader.
December 20, 2005
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Rebecca Wolfson is a Sierra Club intern.
Bruce Nilles heads up Sierra Club’s Midwest Clean Energy Campaign.