The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating 15 state-owned power plants, including several on University of Wisconsin System campuses, to determine if they are in violation of the federal Clean Air Act.

The federal agency sent the state Department of Administration a letter Thursday requesting information about the plants. They include power plants on UW campuses at Eau Claire, La Crosse, Oshkosh, Platteville, River Falls, Stevens Point, Menonomie, Superior and Whitewater.

Three Madison plants are included: Capitol Heat and Power, Mendota Mental Health Institute, and Hill Farms. Also included in the request for information are plants at the Northern Wisconsin Center, Waupun Correctional Facility and the Winnebago Mental Health Institute.

The state Department of Natural Resources has already notified the DOA that plants at the Mendota Mental Health Institute and on the campuses at Eau Claire, La Crosse, Oshkosh and River Falls are not in compliance and that five others may also be in violation of the Clean Air Act.

At issue is whether millions of dollars worth of upgrades at some of the coal-burning plants increased the potential for the plants to emit more pollution. The Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, grandfathered existing power plants but the law also required that those plants obtain new permits and install more pollution controls to meet standards if they underwent major modifications that increased emissions.

The DOA indicated in February that it intends to eliminate coal use or perhaps shut down plants at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison and on UW campuses in Eau Claire, La Crosse, Oshkosh and River Falls.

"We just received the letter," said DOA spokeswoman Emily Winecke of the EPA request. "We've been working on these issues for some time and will continue to provide the EPA with the information they requested."

In the letter, the EPA asked for "a list of all repair, replacement, modification, or operational changes" in the boilers at the plants since they first went into use. Also requested is data on emissions and annual coal consumption since January 1980.

The state's power plants first came under scrutiny in 2007 when the Sierra Club sued the state for similar violations at the Charter Street Heating Plant on the UW-Madison campus. A finding in favor of the environmental organization resulted in the state signing a consent decree that saw the elimination of coal at Charter and at the Capitol Heating Plant in Downtown Madison.

Efforts to convert Charter to burn biofuels have been met with opposition from Gov.-elect Scott Walker although construction on new natural gas boilers at the plant continues.

The Sierra Club has also pursued action against UW plants at Eau Claire, La Crosse, Stevens Point, and Menomonie. Jennifer Feyerherm, with the Sierra Club, said the EPA letter should be an eye-opener for the DOA.

"Hopefully, this is a sign that the EPA is stepping in to enforce the law," Feyerherm said.

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