ST. PAUL (AP) -- Xcel Energy Inc. faces a multimillion-dollar cleanup because of toxic pollution beneath a northern Wisconsin bay of Lake Superior.
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.
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 has known of the pollution at Ashland since the mid-1990s and has taken steps to reduce groundwater contamination.
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.
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.
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 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.
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