Wisconsin has more underground toxic coal plant waste sites than any state in the nation.
By now you’ve heard about the tragedy on the Clinch River in Tennessee. Just before Christmas, a landslide of power plant waste slid over several homes and into the river. The Tennessee Valley Authority, a power plant run by the federal government, released more than 5.4 million cubic yards of the toxic sludge that results when coal is burned in a power plant. This waste contained high levels of arsenic, lead, and thallium—all nasty chemicals that you don’t want in your water. The toxic mixture destroyed more than 3,000 acres of land, and most likely the ecosystem of a river that provided a fishery for the local residents and the drinking water supply for the City of Chattanooga.
All coal-fired power plants produce toxic waste. Some of it, like global-warming-causing carbon dioxide and mercury vapors, is released into the air. Some of it (in total, enough to fill more one million railroad coal cars each year), consisting of ash containing toxic metals and other toxins, is pulled out of the plant and stored or buried. (While the coal industry likes to claim that some of that sludge is “reused,” it is really just being buried, but by a different name. It is being dumped into an old quarry or mine for “fill.”)
While the Tennessee story is tragic and the visuals are sensational TV, most of the tragedy from coal waste is not seen. Every day, all over the United States, there are similar toxic sludge spills. Only, they occur underground, where they enter the ground and water supplies just the same as the spill we can see. A disproportionate number of those underground spills appear to be located here, in Wisconsin.
In a July 2007 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documented known and suspected cases where coal plant waste is polluting the land and water. Of 135 sites 24 are located in Wisconsin—more than in any other state. Almost every coal plant in Wisconsin is associated with an underground toxic mess that is leaching toxins like cadmium, chromium, manganese, and arsenic into the ground, the groundwater, and sometimes into the rivers in Wisconsin. For example, We Energies’ Cedar-Sauk landfill received the toxic power plant waste from the Port Washington plant for a decade. Monitoring of the groundwater showed that the sludge released enough boron, selenium, and sulfate to exceed the state standards. A nearby wetland was also being damaged as a result of the power plant sludge. That’s just one example.
The Wisconsin toxic messes from coal plant waste include:
* Dairyland Power Coop’s landfill for the E.J. Stoneman power plant
* We Energies’ Highway 59 landfill
* Alliant’s Nelson Dewey landfill
* We Energies’ Cedar Sauk landfill
* We Energies’ Port Washington landfill
* Alliant’s Rock River landfill
* Alliant’s Edgewater landfill
* WPSC’s Pulliam landfill
* Dairyland Power Coop’s on-site landfill and off-site landfill
* Lemberger Landfill (which accepted the waste from Manitowoc Utility’s coal plant)
The sites that EPA is still investigating, but are likely toxic spills include:
* Dairyland Power Coop’s Genoa plant landfill
* Alliant’s Columbia plant landfills (2)
* We Energies’ Oak Creek landfill
* Landfills for paper mills’ coal plant waste (8)
* We Energies Pleasant Prairie plant landfill
Coal plant waste is radioactive. In fact, according to Scientific American, the fly ash created in a coal-fired power plant “carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.”
Here in Wisconsin, we have correctly banned new nuclear plants until there is a permanent solution to the waste they generated. We also require local governments to have recycling programs. Yet, we still allow construction of new coal plants without requiring that they have a better solution to the toxic waste the generate other than burying it in the ground—a practice that we know is resulting in toxic releases.
The state Legislature should prohibit the construction of new coal plants unless they commit to dealing with the waste by recycling—and not the coal industry’s pretend “recycling” that involves dumping the waste into a hole.
January 8, 2009
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David Bender is an attorney with the Madison law firm of Garvey, McNeil & McGillivray.