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People are getting sick around the We Energies Power Plant in Oak Creek and the power plant has just learned about the health concerns. But yet they are purchasing properties of those afflicted – and requiring confidentiality agreements as part of the sale.

Neighbors have taken years to connect the dots: but as the power plant has expanded they started talking about the water, coal dust and fly ash, their health issues and declining property values. Almost 20 families are negotiating with We Energies about the impact of living next to the Oak Creek Power Plant, which they say has had an impact on their health, drinking water, and property values over the years, said the group’s attorney Maxwell Livingston.

“We Energies is currently in the process of negotiating with nearby families in Racine who suffer from a series of health defects – ranging from breathing-related problems to cancer – allegedly caused by exposure to WE Energies’ toxic coal-dust. Four of those families have had their homes microscopically tested all of whom have received test results verifying toxic coal dust on their properties,” Livingston said.

Coal pile expansion concerns neighbors

The Department of Natural Resources approved We Energies’ request last week to double the size of its coal pile storage capacity from 45 to 90 days, which will include expanding the storage area from 15.4 acres to 33.6 acres by the first half of 2017. The expansion will also mean more coal trains after the construction project is completed in the first half of 2017. We Energies expects to add two to three more coal trains per month for the first couple of years. But once that storage facility is full, they expect to return back to the level it’s at today, said Brian Manthey, spokesperson for We Energies.

Check out these videos of the coal coming from the coal pile and this one from Frank Michna.

“The expansion along with a project enabling us to increase the blending of the two types of coal at our new Oak Creek units will save our customers tens of millions of dollars in fuel costs annually,” Manthey said.  “As the market demand for power from our Oak Creek units has increased, the risk of low coal inventories also has increased due to extended periods of limited coal deliveries caused by severe weather, flooding, derailments and general shipper congestion.”

The DNR made changes to We Energies’ draft permit and requires that the energy company do video monitoring of the coal piles, cut the opacity limitation, install wind barriers, and use crusting agents on portions of the south coal pile.

But Tim Hupp, Frank Michna, Bill Pringle and the other families have grown tired of We Energies’ routine of testing, denying the claims of some, and fixing the problems for others. They say there is evidence of coal dust coming from the coal trains and from the coal piles, and fly ash coming from the power plant. All of this, they say, is costing them and their families’ health.

“After it snowed, it looked like someone just took a giant pepper shaker and shook it all around our yard and our neighbors’ yards,” Pringle said.

Read more about their stories here: Tim Hupp, Frank Michna, and Bill Pringle.

More coal headed here

Now that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has given permission to We Energies to double the size of the coal pile, neighbors living near the coal plant and coal trains feel a more pressing need to have their health issues acknowledged by We Energies and the DNR.

Hupp was unhappy when the DNR allowed We Energies the ability to double the size of its coal pile last week.

“More trains are supposed to come in and they are supposed be spraying a glaze on it… well I’m going to be checking on that,” he said.

Known toxins in coal dust include arsenic, mercury, and other heavy metals. The DNR acknowledges that the particulates found in coal and coal dust are associated with respiratory illnesses and other health effects, but “fugitive coal dusts would not constitute a major exposure to nearby populations” because they are larger particles,” according to the memo.

Livingston takes issue with the DNR’s position and he points to a letter written by Dr. David Ross, Sarah Pringle’s doctor. Sarah is Bill’s wife, and she had asthma before they moved into their house, but her symptoms grew worse over time.

In the letter, Ross reviewed the results of the test We Energies did on the coal sample Pringle supplied them.

“It was recently brought to my attention that Mrs. Pringle has been exposed to raw coal dust particulates that apparently have come from train cars that are brought to her home via wind that are associated with the WE Energies power plants,” according to Ross. “Mrs. Pringle continues to have significant trouble with her asthma, breathing and allergy-type symptoms…it seems very probable that her condition is being worsened by exposure to raw coal dust particulates.”

Bill also has letters of support from another doctor his wife saw and his son’s doctor about the issue.

“Why are all of the doctors saying We Energies is causing an issue if they are not? There’s a whole host of studies about how coal exposure can kill people,” Livingston said.

Indeed, studies done on people who live near mountain-removal mines in Appalachia and anyone who is exposed to blowing coal dust from uncovered piles of crushed or pulverized coal showed that they are “especially at risk for certain diseases,” according to an article by Midwest Energy News published in 2013.

Researchers quoted in the article found that rates of high blood pressure, respiratory disorders, and kidney disease were higher in coal-mining counties than non-mining counties, and hospitalization for high blood pressure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder increased the more coal was mined nearby.”

“As coal has moved from underground to the surface, the mining gets dirtier and more disruptive, and the exposure opportunities have increased,” according

We Energies has used a blend of surface-mined coal and underground-mined coal since the 1990s, but they plan to use more because it will save money for their customers, Manthey said.

We Energies acknowledges coal dust found in some homes

We Energies told Racine County Eye that of the 33 homes they tested in the last decade, nine were found to have coal dust. But DNR officials didn’t know about the most recent complaints from 2014 and 2015, according to a DNR memo dated Aug. 24.

And, for the past two years, the DNR hasn’t received any complaints from residents about coal dust “on off-plant property.”

Still, the final permit requires that We Energies keep records of complaints and follow-up actions on off-site coal dust complaints.

But the challenge for Michna and the other neighbors who are experiencing health issues is that they didn’t know where to turn for help.

“Nobody knows really who to call when it comes to reporting this stuff,” he said.

We Energies’ spokesperson Brian Manthey said the company is trying to address neighbors’ concerns by offering to pressure wash homes, buy drinking water for people who have contaminated wells, and purchasing property from homeowners who have put their homes on the market.

Hupp’s home was tested last year, and We Energies sent him a letter saying that a small amount of coal dust was found in his home. His water was also recently tested by Clean Wisconsin and they found high levels of lead, aluminum and magnesium. But back in 2006, the DNR tested his water and told him it was safe to drink.

The plant has been operational since 1959, but it went through an expansion that began in 2005 and was completed in 2011.

Since then, We Energies has been pressure washing Hupp’s house and he planned to call them to find out the results of his test to see if they would start buying his water.

“I’ve got a deck full of coal dust, I can’t drink my water… and I can’t believe they are letting them do this [expand the coal pile],” he said. “And now there are more trains coming.”

Manthey encouraged residents to reach out to them.

“Residents with any concerns regarding our facilities can contact us and we will investigate those concerns,” he said.

Officials at We Energies were just recently made aware of some of the neighbors’ health concerns and they are looking into this matter, Manthey said.

He also pointed out that there were no health claims about coal dust or fly ash from any of the homes they recently bought in the area around the coal plant other than claims made by Pringle.

But Racine County Eye has learned that over the years, homeowners say that We Energies requires them to sign an agreement to not discuss the sale of their home and it prohibits sellers from suing We Energies. In return, sellers receive $10,000 from We Energies over the selling  price of their home.

Over the years, the utility has purchased 26 properties in Caledonia that are near the Oak Creek power plant, 4801 E. Elm Rd in Oak Creek, according to Racine County records.

“Asking sellers to sign the confidentiality agreement is voluntary, and a standard and common practice when negotiating a contract,” said We Energies spokesperson Amy Jahns.


Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.

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