faces large cleanup of former Ashland, Wis., gas plant
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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