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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Xcel French Island Incinerator

— On behalf of Wisconsin citizens, Midwest Environmental Advocates investigated the Xcel French Island Incinerator claims that they didn't need strict air regulations because they were a "small" incinerator. Turns out, they were wrong.

Case Summary

Northern States Power's (or Xcel's) French Island incinerator in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is the largest municipal waste incinerator in the state.  It is located amidst the bluffs, forest, and farmland of the Mississippi River and uses a short stack to deliver its toxic emissions to the surrounding environment.  The incinerator is a significant source of dioxin and mercury, and violated its state-issued operating permit consistently since 1989.  Yet, the DNR has never penalized the company in any way.

The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act required the EPA to make the standards and guidelines for municipal waste incinerators stricter because these sources contribute air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.  Emissions from the French Island incinerator contain organics (dioxins/furans), metals (cadmium, lead, mercury, particulate matter, and opacity), acid gases (Hcl and sulfur dioxide), and nitrogen oxide.  Mercury and dioxin emissions are of particular concern because they bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain.

In the mid-90s, the EPA created new standards for plants, such as the French Island incinerator, that were constructed on or before September 20, 1994 and burn over 35 tons of garbage per day.  A court order modified this rule and applied it only to "large" incinerators that burn over 250 tons per day.

In the mid-1990s Xcel applied for a federal Title V operating permit, an air permit.  In that permit application, the company claimed that its boilers could burn up to 12 tons per hour of Refuse Derived Fuel, shredded municipal garbage.  This means that the incinerator can burn 288 tons per day and should fit into the "large" category.

Yet Xcel claimed it falls into the "small" category, a category that is conveniently unregulated by federal law.  In March 1997, the EPA sent a letter to Xcel approving Xcel's assertion that it is a small incinerator not subject to restrictions on toxic emissions.  Several months later, in September 1997, the DNR sent a letter to the EPA certifying that it had no large municipal waste incinerators in the state.

Midwest Environmental Advocates investigated this facility and found that it is, contrary to company assertions, a large incinerator and therefore required to install new technology to control its toxic emissions, stop burning garbage, or cease operations.  We toured the incinerator in April 2000 and created a video showing all the points in the system that make it a large incinerator.  We convinced the EPA to reopen its investigation of the incinerator and reconsider its decision on the applicability of the regulations.  The EPA determined that the incinerator was "large" and must comply with more stringent federal standards by December 19, 2000.

Just a few months later, Midwest Environmental Advocates, on behalf of Wisconsin's Environmental Decade (now Clean Wisconsin), filed a Notice of Intent to sue Xcel for violating the federal Clean Air Act.  The EPA then got involved and negotiated a settlement with Xcel.

In the end, Xcel had to install pollution control equipment and was held to more stringent air pollution standards. Midwest Environmental Advocates is proud of the outcome and proud of the long struggle that the citizens in La Crosse endured.