Study: Wisconsin groundwater contaminated by coal ash

The Oak Creek Power Plant near Milwaukee is a significant source of coal ash that a new report says is contaminating nearby groundwater. (Photo by JanetandPhil via Creative Commons)

The Oak Creek Power Plant near Milwaukee is a significant source of coal ash that a new report says is contaminating nearby groundwater. (Photo by JanetandPhil via Creative Commons)

The “beneficial reuse” of coal ash, often touted as a way to keep the material out of landfills, is potentially causing serious contamination of drinking water in southeast Wisconsin and possibly across the state, according to a report released Tuesday by Clean Wisconsin.

By classifying coal ash as an “industrial byproduct,” as report author Tyson Cook says, companies are able to place contaminant-laden coal ash in the ground — as structural fill in and below roads, trails, parking lots, buildings, and bridges — with no lining or monitoring.

About 85 percent of Wisconsin’s coal ash is reused, compared to about 50 percent nationwide. Congress has even called Wisconsin the “gold standard” on this front.

Clean Wisconsin’s study of test results from almost 1,000 wells found that there is evidence such coal ash is contaminating groundwater that provides drinking water for thousands of residents.

At a Racine area elementary school, Clean Wisconsin’s own testing found molybdenum levels at more than twice the state’s enforcement standard.

Clean Wisconsin’s analysis of state test results also found that molybdenum contamination is significantly higher in close proximity to coal ash structural fill sites — ash layered below roads, buildings and the like to create level ground and fill spaces. Higher molybdenum levels also corresponded to the flow of groundwater in relation to known coal ash reuse sites, the study found.

Illinois activists seek federal takeover of mining oversight

A former coal mine site in southern Illinois has become the focal point of a legal fight over state regulation. (Image via Google Maps)

A former coal mine site in southern Illinois has become the focal point of a legal fight over state regulation. (Image via Google Maps)

Around the turn of the millennium, southern Illinois environmental consultant Bob Johnson would drive by a six-story-high grassy plateau and imagine the ways the reclaimed coal mine waste storage site could be put to “higher or better” use than its previous life as farmland.

Those words are enshrined in the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMRCA), the federal law that requires mine sites to be returned to an approximation of their natural contours and to uses at least as beneficial as their previous incarnation.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could put baseball fields on top of this mound of waste, from the highway you’d see them up in the air, people would be enjoying it, wouldn’t that be great?” said Johnson.

But far from becoming sports fields, the waste dump has become the grounds for a legal demand, filed last month, that seeks a federal takeover of mining oversight in Illinois.

If granted, the decision could put a major chill on Illinois’s resurgent coal mining industry and spark the re-examination of numerous mining and waste permits previously issued by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).

Chicago group sells landlords on benefits of energy efficiency

In Cook County, which includes Chicago, 41 percent of households are renters. (Photo by sabrina via Creative Commons)

In Cook County, which includes Chicago, 41 percent of households are renters. (Photo by sabrina via Creative Commons)

Making the case for energy efficiency investments seems relatively straightforward for homeowners who will reap the benefits directly in lower utility bills. But for rental, multi-unit buildings where landlords pay for infrastructure and appliance upgrades while tenants pay all or most of the utility bills, it’s much more complicated.

This situation is referred to as a “split incentive,” where the party making the investment won’t directly reap all or any of the financial benefits.

Landlords who don’t live in a given building also don’t have the personal incentive of seeking a more comfortable dwelling free of drafts and temperature swings.

But energy efficiency measures like insulation, new furnaces, smart appliances and efficient lighting do pay off for building owners, a message the Chicago-based group Elevate Energy is working to convey statewide. Elevate Energy has a program specifically to educate multi-unit building owners about energy efficiency and assist them with free energy audits and advice on contractors and upgrades.

Groups seek investigation of Wisconsin rate case ‘petitions’

Clean-energy advocates are calling for the Wisconsin Public Service Commission to investigate a list of 2,500 names submitted in support of utilities in two controversial rate cases.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC) and RENEW Wisconsin say at least some of the people in the list have said they actually oppose the plans.

Experts say the rate proposals by We Energies and Madison Gas & Electric (MG&E) would have a devastating effect on solar energy in the state.

Consumer Energy Alliance, a Houston group that advocates in support of fossil fuel development, submitted to the Public Service Commission the names of 2,500 electricity customers statewide, in both We Energies and MG&E’s service territories. They said the people had signed a petition supporting the utilities’ proposals, which would make it much less financially viable to install solar energy, farm biogas digesters or other distributed generation.

However, people who CEA claimed signed the petition have since said they did not realize what the petition actually signified, and that they are not in support of the utilities’ proposals. An October 21 story in the Madison Capital Times quoted several customers saying they strongly opposed the utilities and were confused about how their names got linked to the petition.

From Chicago to small towns, spreading the smart grid gospel

 Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation grantees tour Ameren facilities in downstate Illinois. (Photo courtesy ISEIF)

Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation grantees tour Ameren facilities in downstate Illinois. (Photo courtesy ISEIF)

The smart meters being delivered to Illinois homes under the state’s 2011 smart grid law could potentially spark significant energy savings – relieving burden on the grid and on power supplies and saving money for residents.

But that’s only if people use the information provided by smart meters to modify their habits, by shifting when they use energy, installing more efficient appliances and the like. Figuring out how to use a smart meter and respond to the data it provides is a complicated and intimidating task for anyone.

It is especially challenging for renters and public housing residents who don’t own their appliances or even pay their own energy bills; or for senior citizens who don’t know how to use the internet; or for immigrants who don’t speak English. And for people in low-income and marginalized neighborhoods in general, beset by violence, decrepit housing, and a lack of well-paying jobs, understanding and modifying energy use is likely to be a very low priority.

Murky waters: Chicagoans worry petcoke moving to barges

Barges filled with material that appears to be petroleum coke line the Calumet River in Chicago. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

Barges filled with material that appears to be petroleum coke line the Calumet River in Chicago. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

A full rainbow arched over the Calumet River on a bleak day in late September, lending a hint of beauty to the massive abandoned grain elevator, the ramshackle warehouses and the lines of barges moored by the Illinois International Port.

Some of the barges were covered, but at least nine of them were uncovered and piled high with a powdery black material that appeared to be petroleum coke, or petcoke, the byproduct of oil refining that has sparked a grassroots uprising and political debate in Chicago.

It’s not clear that the material is definitely petcoke. Facilities along the Calumet also handle and store coal and metallurgical coke, or metcoke, and various other bulk materials.

U.S. Coast Guard spokesperson Lt. Simone Mausz said that no government agency tracks barges on the Calumet or other Chicago rivers. “It’s impossible to tell how many barges go up and down the river, how many are ‘red flag,’ how many are carrying petcoke,” she said.

An industry spokesman declined to disclose what materials the barges are handling, and officials from Chicago’s port authority did not respond to requests for information on the shipments.

In the absence of information, residents see the barges as the latest wrinkle in the petcoke story, representing new concerns about the material and also about a serious lack of transparency regarding any potentially toxic materials that are moved on the river.

In Milwaukee, critics blast We Energies rate proposal

Opponents of a proposed We Energies rate plan largely outnumbered proponents at a Milwaukee hearing Wednesday. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

Opponents of a proposed We Energies rate plan largely outnumbered proponents at a Milwaukee hearing Wednesday. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

MILWAUKEE – More than 200 people packed a public hearing on We Energies’ proposed rate restructuring in Milwaukee on Wednesday afternoon. And that was before the brass band played in the parking lot and an evening hearing that brought a new crowd.

“Are they having a party here? Is the news coming to cover the pool players?” asked one local walking up to the senior center where the hearing was held.

The attention to the normally obscure rate-making procedure (docket number 5-UR-107) is because We Energies’ proposal is seen as an attack on renewable energy that could nearly halt rooftop solar development in the area and chill distributed generation in general, including small wind projects and farm biogas digesters.

If the Public Service Commission approves We Energies’ plan, it would mean the fixed charges all consumers pay each month would go up by 75 percent while rates for energy consumption would go down, greatly reducing the incentive for installing rooftop solar or other distributed generation.

Dynegy plan to switch grid operators would cost ratepayers

Illinois Coal Plants

The Newton Power Station is one of five Illinois coal plants that Dynegy took over last year. (AP Photo/Jim Suhr, File)

Last year, Ameren Corp. basically paid Dynegy Inc. to take five aging coal plants in downstate Illinois off its hands.

Now Dynegy is seeking to make those plants more profitable, through changes to the way they are paid for capacity – potential future generation that can be called on if needed.

Critics of the plan say the changes would mean higher costs for ratepayers with little, if any, improvement in reliability.

The plants provide power to the utility Ameren Illinois, which is part of the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO) regional transmission organization (RTO). MISO runs an annual capacity auction wherein generators are paid for power they will be prepared to provide if needed.

In fight against pollution, nurses union on the front lines

Members of National Nurses United protest petroleum coke storage in Chicago in May. (Photo by Bob Simpson via Creative Commons)

Members of National Nurses United protest petroleum coke storage in Chicago in May. (Photo by Bob Simpson via Creative Commons)

“Whatever it is a nurse can do, I probably have done it,” says Beverly Van Buren, an operating room nurse at St. Louis University Hospital who has also worked in nursing homes, podiatry, the military reserves and other posts in her nearly four-decade career.

“And I have loved it – it has been a fantastic journey,” she said.

The latest stage of Van Buren’s journey features a growing mission among nurses nationwide: the pursuit of environmental justice, fueled by a growing awareness of the environmental factors that could be linked to, causing or exacerbating the cancers, respiratory ailments or other conditions that affect their patients.

Nurses have individually become increasingly aware of the role of the environment in health, and over the past two years the National Nurses United labor union has launched a concerted campaign to mobilize on environmental justice issues — including the role of fossil fuels in both local pollution and climate change.

Q&A: Tea Party star heads to Wisconsin to fight for solar

In this 2013 file photo, Debbie Dooley speaks at a hearing before a Senate Rules Committee in Atlanta. Long a political activist, Dooley is now extolling the conservative virtues of distributed renewable energy. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

In this 2013 file photo, Debbie Dooley speaks at a hearing before a Senate Rules Committee in Atlanta. Long a political activist, Dooley is now extolling the conservative virtues of distributed renewable energy. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated Dooley’s itinerary.

Debbie Dooley is not a tree-hugger – in fact she bills herself as a radical right-wing grandmother, and she is a founding member of the national Tea Party and a leader of the Atlanta Tea Party.

But Dooley is also an outspoken proponent of distributed solar generation and other forms of renewable distributed energy. Dooley will be the featured speaker next week at the Wisconsin Solar Energy Industries Association’s Solar Social Speakers series – as advocates in the state say solar is under attack by elected officials, regulators and major utilities.