The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is proposing to issue Alliant Energy a new five-year permit for its coal-fired power plant south of Portage without imposing federal guidelines designed to curb water pollution.
Alliant is seeking a wastewater permit extension for the Columbia Energy Center, a 1,200-megawatt plant jointly owned by Madison Gas & Electric that burns about 300,000 tons of coal each month, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The draft permit, which would allow the plant to discharge cooling pond water into the Wisconsin River, does not include a 2015 Environmental Protection Agency provision that would require the utility to stop using water to remove ash from the boilers.
Alliant currently uses water to quench the ash and carry it through pipes to a nearby pond where the ash settles to the bottom before being excavated. Some is used in construction materials and the rest put in a landfill.
EPA guidelines adopted since the permit was last renewed require coal plant operators to switch to dry ash handling by 2020, although the deadline can be extended to 2023 in some cases.
The rules, which the Trump administration has indicated may be reconsidered, were designed to prevent mercury and other poisons from leaching into groundwater or spilling into rivers, where they can accumulate in fish. According to the EPA, exposure to high levels of mercury can damage the human heart, brain, lungs, kidneys and immune system.
“It’s toxic no matter what it is,” said Elizabeth Katt Reinders, state director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “It’s a bigger risk if it’s wet.”
Alliant says it is exploring plans to adopt dry ash handling by 2023 but hasn’t provided an exact timeline.
The Sierra Club has called on the DNR to impose a legal deadline.
“It’s not enforceable,” said Greg Wannier, staff attorney for the environmental group. “They could change their mind.”
The Sierra Club has raised similar objections to the DNR’s draft permit for WE Energies’ coal-fired plants in Oak Creek, which would allow the utility to continue wet ash handling until the end of 2023 and to exceed the state mercury limits in water dumped into Lake Michigan.
As part of its permit renewal, Alliant has asked to remove overflow from the ash pond, something the utility says hasn’t occurred since 2004.
Jason Knutson, the DNR’s wastewater section chief, said because the permit no longer allows for surface water discharges from the coal ash pond, the agency cannot impose related regulations.
“The effluent limitation guidelines are federal regulations and only apply to surface waters,” Knutson said. “Based on the information we have right now and our legal interpretation it would be overstepping our legal authority.”
That doesn’t eliminate the risk of the coal ash water contaminating the Wisconsin River, according to the Sierra Club.
“It’s ostriching a little bit,” Wannier said. “They’re saying this is not allowed but the reality is if there’s a flooding event there’s going to be some sort of discharge.”
About 1.1 million gallons of water a day seep from the unlined ponds into groundwater, according to DNR permit documents.
“That’s a massive potential source of contamination,” Wannier said. “The DNR needs to be looking at whether that groundwater pollution is reaching the river.”
According to the DNR, groundwater samples from around the ponds have shown concentrations of boron above state groundwater quality standards and elevated levels of arsenic and sulfate.
Wisconsin law does not require testing for mercury at coal ash landfills.
There are no wells within a half-mile radius that aren’t owned by Alliant, but Wannier said if contaminated groundwater finds its way into surface water Alliant should be subject to DNR authority.
Bill Skalitzky, Alliant’s manager of environmental services, said the company is in the “preliminary phases” of exploring dry-ash handling for Columbia. He said a dry-ash system will need to be in place by 2023, when Alliant must stop using the settling ponds to comply with a different set of federal rules.
Alliant estimates there is up to 1.1 million cubic yards of ash and wastewater stored in the main settling pond and a second inactive pond, according to the company’s plans for closing the ponds.
Skalitzky said while dry ash handling systems cost more to install they also have advantages, including less down-time for boilers. Alliant has installed dry-handling systems at two of its plants.
But Wannier said without enforcement by the DNR there’s no guarantee that Alliant wouldn’t continue handling the ash with water and transporting it somewhere else for treatment.