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Xcel faces large cleanup of former Ashland, Wis., gas plant
Tom Meersman
Minneapolis Star Tribune

A technology that disappeared a half-century ago has left toxic pollution beneath a northern Wisconsin bay of Lake Superior -- and a multimillion-dollar cleanup facing Xcel Energy Inc.

The pollutants affecting about 20 acres of Chequamegon Bay and nearby shorefront at Ashland, Wis., can be traced in part to a plant that once operated there. It converted coal into gas for heating, cooking and lighting for more than 60 years beginning in the 1880s.

"We've got a severely contaminated sediment problem here," said Jamie Dunn, project supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added the site to its Superfund list, but that doesn't mean the federal government will pay to clean up the site.

Across Minnesota and Wisconsin, more than 75 former coal-gas plants built in the 19th century have left toxic footprints in towns and cities. Some sites have been cleaned up. Others still contain buried benzene, napthalene, coal tars and other chemical byproducts released before pollution control agencies even existed.

Northern States Power Co., Xcel's predecessor, acquired the Ashland property in 1977. Xcel, which is facing financial woes because of a downturn in the energy business, has known of the pollution at Ashland since the mid-1990s and has taken steps to reduce groundwater contamination.

The bigger cleanup is yet to come, in 2005 at the earliest. Xcel says a defunct lumber company on the bayfront caused some of the pollution, so the utility shouldn't foot the entire bill.

"We will be part of the cleanup but we don't think it's legally appropriate to our customers to take on all the liability," said Jerry Winslow, Xcel principal environmental engineer.

Toxic history

In the late 19th century, manufactured gas, sometimes called coal gas, was produced in small local plants and delivered by pipelines to power streetlights, homes and businesses.

Then electricity arrived, and later, natural gas via interstate pipelines. By the mid-20th century, the coal gasification industry ceased to exist.

But its toxic byproducts -- solvents, oily tars and other wastes -- often remained buried at the plant sites. Some of the chemicals are known to cause cancer. At some sites, waste was discharged into waterways.

In Minnesota, pollution control officials have identified 30 historic gas plant sites, and several cleanups are underway or finished. Perhaps the most serious was the former Minneapolis Gas Works along the Mississippi River. Minnegasco, now CenterPoint Energy Minnegasco, spent about $30 million to clean up contaminated soil and groundwater on 25 acres there between 1991 and 1998.

The cleanup could be more expensive along Ashland's waterfront -- one of 49 known coal-gas pollution sites in Wisconsin. Wastes have contaminated soil, 10 acres of sediment in the bay, groundwater and a filled-in part of the bay. Large docks on each side of the bay's affected area limit the spread of contamination by waves.

"Anything shoved out in the lake is just sitting there on the bottom," said Jennifer Pelczar, a Wisconsin DNR hydrogeologist.

The polluted bay area has been closed to swimming, wading and boating since 1995 because of health risks. Yellow warning signs every 100 feet along the beach advise people to wash themselves or their pets immediately with soap and water if they get oily tar on their skin. Other signs warn boaters to stay away, so that boat propellers or anchors don't stir up sediment and create oil slicks.

Wisconsin authorities say that some of the compounds can be cancer-causing at high exposures, but they note that public health risks remain relatively low as long as citizens avoid contact with the oily tar or vapors that might be emitted from oil slicks. City water supplies and two artesian wells in a park near the beach have not been contaminated.

Who pays for cleanup?

Xcel officials have taken responsibility for cleaning up pollution on property it owns on the bluff. Its groundwater is contaminated with tar compounds and other chemicals called volatile organics. A now-filled ravine contains tar, cinder ash, boiler slag and other debris dumped there nearly a century ago.

Since 1995 Xcel has spent about $3 million for legal fees, consultants' advice, excavation of some contaminated soil and for a pumping system to collect tar from groundwater. That amount could be dwarfed by the total cost of cleanup. A consultant for the DNR estimated in 1998 that the costs could range from $4 million to $93 million, depending on the extent of cleanup and whether the contaminated bay sediment would be covered to entomb the tar or dredged to remove it.

Xcel contends the former plant couldn't have produced all the waste in the bay or beneath Kreher Park, a city-owned property created decades ago by filling in part of the bay. Xcel argues that a former lumber company polluted the water and sediment with creosote, tar and other wood preservatives.

But the DNR takes a different view on the area's toxic history. Project manager Dunn said there is no evidence the lumber company produced significant tars and oils.

The standoff between Xcel and the government has frustrated citizens who already were uneasy about the beach signs.

"Every time DNR takes one step, it is matched by a counterstep from Xcel, and that has made it difficult for this process to move along quickly," said Kim Bro, executive director of the Sigurd Olson Institute at Northland College in Ashland.

The site landed on the Superfund list after some citizens filed a petition to place it on the list. Now, federal officials will oversee the DNR's management of the cleanup.

Xcel officials said it is concerned about the cleanup's effect on customers' bills. "We want a cleanup that does the right thing for the environment, but we also want to make sure our customers aren't getting stuck with a $50 or $60 million bill," said Dave Donovan, Xcel's regulatory policy adviser in Eau Claire, Wis.

Donovan said that under Wisconsin rules, Xcel could pass along the costs of cleanup to its approximately 90,000 Wisconsin natural gas customers.

Fixing the problem

The timing and method of cleanup also are contentious issues.

Excavating soil and dredging the bay, if needed, could create oil slicks in the lake and vapors in the air -- potential risks to humans and wildlife.

A comprehensive investigation of the site, including all that is known from previous studies, has begun. That report, expected next year, will be followed in late 2004 by a feasibility study listing the cleanup options.

Kathy Allen, an Ashland resident who has been active in the dispute and was elected to the City Council last April, said citizens are prepared for a lengthy process. They want the community to play a significant role in cleanup decisions, she said.

"There aren't any real clear bad guys and good guys," she said. "But we've got a mess, and we have to figure out the fairest and quickest and best way to clean it up."

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