Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

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UW-Madison Charter Street Coal Plant

— Midwest Environmental Advocates represented Sierra Club in a suit that enforced water and land pollution laws. The University's coal fired power plant was allowing contaminated stormwater to runoff in to lakes and seep in to groundwater and soil.

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The UW-Madison Charter Street Heating Plant is currently going through a rebuild that will remove the existing coal fired boilers and replace them with natural gas boilers. Midwest Environmental Advocates supports this transition to a cleaner source of fuel.

Case Summary

The Charter Street Heating Plant, online since the mid-1950s, burns coal and tire derived fuel (“TDF”), at the Plant’s location in downtown Madison -- just two blocks away from the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus. The Charter Street Plant stores its coal and TDF in large, open-air piles on the site. The pile of fuel is open to the elements and is only separated from the surrounding area by a two-foot high cement retaining wall and a chain-link fence. Rain and snow contact the pile directly, and the subsequent runoff flows into the municipal storm sewer, which ultimately discharges to nearby Monona Bay, a popular recreational area for swimming, boating and year-round fishing.

The stormwater runoff from the coal pile can, and often does, include whole coal pieces, whole TDF pieces, and suspended coal and TDF particulates, which can be seen running across the bike path and city streets. Testing of runoff samples taken at the Plant indicated high levels of arsenic, zinc, iron, manganese, aluminum and other metals, some of which are human carcinogens. Samples even indicated that arsenic levels in the water flowing to the storm drains were nearly two times greater than the human cancer criteria for surface waters in the state of Wisconsin. These pollutants, as well as other coal-derived toxins, adversely affect aquatic life and threaten the fish and amphibian populations in Monona Bay as well. Further investigation of the site and the facility’s design suggested that the pollution may not be limited to stormwater runoff. The soil and groundwater underneath the piles and at and near the site may also be contaminated by coal.

On August 3, 2007, Midwest Environmental Advocates served a Notice of Intent to Sue to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Department of Administration on behalf of the Sierra Club, for all known past and on-going violations of the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) at the Charter Street Plant. The Charter Street Plant is in violation of the Clean Water Act and RCRA for illegal industrial coal-contaminated stormwater discharges to Monona Bay and coal-contamination of the groundwater underlying the Plant’s site. The Sierra Club’s Notice of Intent sought a court order to compel the Charter Street Plant to fix the problem of polluted stormwater run off, remove the coal sediment from Monona Bay and remediate all groundwater contamination.

On May 1, 2008, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued a Wisconsin Pollution Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit to the Charter Street Plant. The permit represents the DNR’s determination that the previously unregulated stormwater discharges from the Charter Street Plant must meet all applicable requirements under the federal Clean Water Act, including enforceable limits on the amount of sediment that may be discharged by the plant. The issued permit effectively resolves the Sierra Club’s Notice of Intent to Sue. The DNR now requires the Plant to monitor and report stormwater flow and total suspended solids levels to the DNR every day that Madison receives more than 0.3 inches of rainfall, from May through October. This monitoring and reporting will continue for the entire five year permit term, unless the DNR determines that results allow for reduced or discontinued monitoring. The permit also requires the Plant develop and implement a “Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan” to address coal yard management so that stormwater contamination is minimized.

Our clients, the Sierra Club, and our co-counsel in this matter, David Bender, experienced success in a separate Clean Air Act suit against the Coal Plant. Read the article in the Capital Times.