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Plants in Ashland, LaCrosse have highest state dioxin emissions
Regulators say figures not alarming
Steve Tomasko
Ashland Daily Press
June 5, 2002


Two Xcel Energy utility plants, in Ashland and LaCrosse, were among the top four dioxin producers during 2000 in Wisconsin, according to new statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency -- however, that does not ring alarm bells for regulators.

The data was part of an annual self-reporting of chemicals released into the environment by industry called the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). As reported to the EPA, total chemical releases into the environment decreased nationwide from 7.8 billion pounds in 1999 to 7.1 billion pounds in 2000.

Dioxin and "dioxin-like" chemicals were newly added to the list for 2000. Although other toxic chemicals are reported in pounds, dioxins are listed in grams.

That's because dioxins, which have been shown to produce cancer in animals and possibly humans, are toxic in "very, very small quantities," said Tara Edblom, Department of Natural Resources TRI coordinator for Wisconsin.

While Xcel's Bayfront plant in Ashland and its French Island plant in LaCrosse reported 3 and 28 grams of dioxins released respectively, that doesn't necessarily produce any alarm bells for regulators.

For example, backyard burning of trash produces much larger quantities of dioxins than most industrial sources, Edblom said.

But, Eric Uram, a Sierra Club spokesman in Madison, the numbers are alarming. Even gram amounts are enough to contaminate millions of people, he said.

The numbers are an indication that power plants are not burning their fuel efficiently, or burning clean fuels. Dioxins are produced when different materials are burned.

Uram said polls have shown that people are willing to spend more money for energy if it's produced with cleaner fuels and technology.

Tina Ball, senior environmental analyst for Xcel, said the dioxin numbers they reported are probably higher than what they actually produce.

Ball said the company doesn't actually monitor dioxin emissions from their plants but use EPA standard emission data to estimate those numbers. Because those numbers are based on burning coal, and the Bayfront plant burns quite a bit of wood along with coal, the actual amount of emissions are likely lower than what they reported, she said.

Also, dioxins are a group of about 17 related compounds, some of which are many thousands of times more toxic than others, Ball said. And the dioxin types they report emitting are not the most toxic, she said.

DNR environmental toxicologist Jeff Myers said in the big picture, utilities are far down the list of dioxin-producing sources.

Among the big three producers are medical and municipal waste incinerators, which are regulated, and back yard trash burning, which is not.

An EPA study last year showed that one family burn barrel can produce as much dioxin and other pollutants as a well-regulated municipal incinerator serving tens of thousands of households.

"The utilities have not been identified as a major source of dioxin emissions," Myers said.

That's not to say companies should not keep trying to burn cleaner fuels or use cleaner-burning technologies, he said.

Myers pointed out another inconsistency in the TRI data reported recently.

The EPA statistics show the state's power plants ranked third in the nation after Virginia and Florida for emissions of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds.

That can be misleading, he said. Some states, like Wisconsin, do a very good job at making sure companies report their emissions, while other states are not as rigorous. Therefore, a higher ranking could indicate a higher level of reporting enforcement, and not necessarily higher actual pollution, Myers said.

For more information on the latest TRI report and data, go to the EPA's website at: www.epa.gov/tri/tridata/tri00/index.htm.

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