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University of Wisconsin, State Found in Violation of Clean Air Act


A 53-year-old coal power plant on the University of Wisconsin campus has been in violation of the federal Clean Air Act for five years, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

The Sierra Club filed the lawsuit in May claiming that the university violated the Clean Air Act by failing to install modern pollution controls when it performed several upgrades to keep the power plant operating.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge John Shabaz ordered pollution controls installed on the plant built in 1954.

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.

No decision had been made on whether to appeal the ruling, Fish said.

The Sierra Club filed the lawsuit as part of a strategy to pressure the university into closing the plant and switching to a cleaner-burning fuel such as natural gas or biomass.

“It sounds like they’re finally recognizing they need to do their part to address global warming and no longer be a part of the problem,” said Bruce Nilles, an attorney for the Sierra Club.

The university must focus on finding alternatives to burning coal in a residential neighborhood, Nilles said.

“I guarantee there will not be any coal burning at that power plant in the future,” he said. “The people of Madison will not tolerate the university being a major source of global warming.”

The lawsuit said the university failed to inform the Department of Natural Resources about upgrades made to the plant since 1996 or obtain necessary permits.

The university argued that work done to the plant was merely routine maintenance and not modifications that required permits or that significantly increased air pollution. But the judge disagreed, singling out four instances since 2001 where improvements were made that resulted in significant increases in emissions and required permits.

The plant, located blocks from Camp Randall Stadium, creates steam used to heat and cool university buildings, federal agencies, the state Historical Society and the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. It is one of three that helps power the campus. Four of its five boilers are fueled by coal.

Environmentalists say the plant is the second largest source of pollution in Dane County, emitting thousands of tons of pollutants that contribute to global warming, respiratory illness and mercury-polluted lakes.

In August, the Sierra Club also said the plant was violating the Clean Water Act by illegally draining coal-contaminated waste into Lake Monona. The ruling issued Wednesday does not address those claims.

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