Change is finally coming for the Charter Street Heating and Cooling Plant on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus after more than 50 years of operation. Responsible for providing electricity and steam to most of the university downtown, the plant was the largest state-owned coal burning facility in 2006 by more than an order of magnitude, and consequently a major source of carbon dioxide emissions, not to mention other pollutants. The UW is now preparing to clean up its act, though.
Back in May, the Sierra Club filed a federal lawsuit against the university, arguing that renovations were made to the plant without proper permits or the installation of modern pollution control technology in violation of the Clean Air Act. At the same time, the state DNR found the plant in violation of its standards, setting into motion a process that would require the university to upgrade the facility.
On Wednesday, November 7, a U.S. District Court judge for the Western District of Wisconsin issued a decision finding the UW and state government in violation of the law over the last five years. With the judge likewise ordering technology upgrades to the plant, it was only a matter of time before the university changed course.
Following several weeks of negotiation, the Sierra Club and the State of Wisconsin announced a consent decree to transition the Charter Street plant and twelve other coal-burning facilities, including three others in Madison. As described in the environmental group's press release:
The settlement has three primary components: 1) The State will cut coal use at the Charter Street power plant by 15 percent beginning January 1, 2008, 2) the State will expand its ongoing clean up study for the Capitol Heating and Power plant to include the clean up and replacement of the Charter Street plant and complete this study no later than July 2008, and 3) the State will conduct a public review of the compliance status of the twelve other state owned coal-fired heating plants in Wisconsin and remedy any identified violations no later than December 2009.This agreement marks the latest stage of a multi-year campaign by the group to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of coal as fuel in power plants around Madison, including the large downtown MG&E facility on Blount Street.
The lead counsel for the Sierra Club in the lawsuit was David Bender, an attorney with the Garvey, McNeil, McGillivray law firm of Madison. After the court's decision was announced, he gave an interview about the lawsuit against the plant for On the Earth Productions, a media production company operated by Karen Rybold Chin and Todd Alan Price. Their brief video report about the issue featuring excerpts of the interview follows.
On the Earth Productions also produced an extended version of the report and interview with Bender.
Later on Monday, the UW associate vice chancellor for facilities Alan Fish issued a statement on behalf of the university regarding the federal court consent decree. He said:
"Along with our partners at the state level, we have made an immediate commitment to reduce coal use at the Charter Street facility by 15 percent and cap usage while we identify ways to move forward with efficient and cleaner options.
"Because we're reducing coal use, we can achieve our goal of reducing coal-generated emissions through energy conservation, purchasing or generating energy from renewable resources and changing the way we use our fuels and facilities. Today's agreement is a victory for all of us who are interested in moving forward with cleaner technology and ensuring a reliable source of energy for the campus.
"The cooperation shown by the Department of Administration and the Department of Natural Resources helped solve what has been a difficult problem and has set us on a course to achieve our goals of energy reliability and continued environmental stewardship. This agreement puts in place a workable, responsible way to help the state and the campus find answers for the future and a cleaner environment for today."
Shortly after the court's decision, UW engineering student Mike Fay took a tour of the coal plant for a class, subsequently sharing his impressions and numerous photos of the antiquated and soon-to-be transformed facility.
"Overall, the plant had quite an unearthly feel to it," he wrote. "There were multitudes of pipes, machinery, and who knows what all over the place, all of it on a bigger scale than a person, all of it going in all directions, a few floors down, or soaring higher into the hot darkness. Who knows what half of it does. Loud and noisy, all out of control, yet completely under control. I felt like an interloper who had walked in on an industrial symphony."