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For years, residents who live near the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant have looked at the coal-based facility as the source of their health issues. This spring, they were told it was unlikely.

In May, residents who filed a grievance with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services in November 2015 received a letter from the agency stating “the inhalable particulates do not currently pose a human health concern to those living nearby, including sensitive individuals.”

The letter, from DHS toxicologist Ryan Wozniak, was based on a review of the We Energies’ air quality data by the Center for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. However, the letter did not include a copy of the CDC’s report. A comparison of the two documents by Racine County Eye found that key details from the March CDC report were omitted from the DHS letter, including that the air further away from the plant could have “higher air concentrations of particulate matter.”

Read the DHS’ letter to neighbors.

The CDC analyzed We Energies’ air quality data collected from a one-mile perimeter around the plant periodically from 2009 to 2013, and throughout 2016. However, toxic particles — which contain heavy metals — can travel 1,000s of miles.

Read the CDC’s letter health consultation.

But We Energies officials have maintained that the particle pollution emitted from the plant was not the source of neighbors’ illnesses and that it has met state and federal air quality standards.

“The air monitoring results and the conclusions from DHS/CDC are consistent with what we have stated all along. The power plant is not causing health issues for the neighbors,” said Brian Manthey, spokesman for We Energies.

Since 2009, the utility has purchased 29 properties in an effort to create a buffer zone around the plant.  

“As we have said before, no link has been established between our operations at the Oak Creek Power Plant and health issues raised by some area residents,”Manthey said last year.

Neighbors Complain, Doctors Point To We Energies

Over the past three years, more than 20 families living near the plant have complained to We Energies, claiming they have been getting sick from living near the plant, their home values are being impacted, and some have said their water is contaminated.

Environmental testing conducted by scientists hired by We Energies and a mediation group revealed 19 of 26 homes tested positive for varying amounts of coal dust.

Fine and ultrafine particles are known to cause heart and lung disease, and respiratory issues. They are also associated with certain types of cancer, according to health officials and the National Institute of Health.

According to the National Institute of Health”

“People who live near coal-fired power plants have the greatest health risks from power plant pollution. Many pollutants such as metals and dioxins may attach to fine particles and travel hundreds or even thousands of miles.”

A number of residents from the tested homes filed formal complaints with the Wisconsin DHS in November 2015 over concerns that their asthma, heart problems, prostate, breast and brain cancers, and COPD could be connected to the operations at the plant and the ever-growing coal dust pile. Several local doctors — Dr. Michael Ganz, of Ganz Asthma & Allergy Center, and Dr. David  Ross, a doctor with Ascension-All Saints, have also associated their patients’ asthma issues with exposure to coal dust.

“I have found that there is significant evidence of the presence of coal particulate matter in their homes, and in a number of these patients that their health has been adversely affected as a result of this exposure… resulting in symptoms of nonspecific rhinitis, sinusitis, and symptoms of chronic bronchitis,” Ganz said.

Larger particulates are also a marker for the presence of smaller particulates because they would invariably be broken down and degraded into fine and ultra-fine particles. In his assessment, Ganz also noted that diesel fumes are also present and they are carrying the coal in open cars.

“Chemical or diesel fume exposure was not measured,” he said.

DHS Response to neighbors’ complaints

DHS spokesperson Jennifer Miller said the department was asked to find out whether the power plant — which has been in operation since the 1950s — poses a current health risk to residents living near the facility.

The agency asked We Energies to install an air monitoring station on the south side of the plant in 2016 at Seven Mile Road and the railroad tracks, roughly one mile from the plant and a quarter of a mile from the coal dust pile. After collecting data for a year, the utility submitted data from Seven Mile Road, as well as data collected from 2009-13 by a station on Elm Road, which was operational from 2004 through Sept. 2013.

“We Energies also supplied DHS with air monitoring data going back to 2009, which was included in a supplementary analysis by ATSDR and reviewed by DHS,” Miller stated in an email. “However, due to changes in emissions requirements and pollution control technologies over time, this older data was less relevant to the question DHS was asked to answer about current health risks.”

DHS then sent a summary of the CDC report to the neighbors that complained, but did not include the CDC report itself.

CDC report characterizes We Energies problem differently

The DHS letter summarizes the CDC’s Letter of Health Conclusion, stating:

“Following ASTDR’s independent review of the air monitoring data collected by We Energies around the perimeter of their facility since 2009, DHS concludes that although the coal pile and rail cars may contribute to the amount of larger particulates in the air near these sources, inhalable particulates do not currently pose a human health concern to those living nearby, including sensitive individuals.”

However, the letter failed to mention the CDC raising the possibility of unsampled locations having “higher air concentrations of particulate matter” and the highest possible sources of larger particle pollution being “likely south of the coal pile and east of the railroad tracks.”

The CDC report highlights how particulate levels fell below EPA air quality standards and guidelines established by the World Health Organization. Officials pointed to 13 days of missing data in August and October, but said the levels were “unlikely” to harm people’s health.

“Given the meteorology of the area…the potential for the highest air concentrations would be south of the coal pile and to the east of the railroad tracks. There are some residences in this area that might experience higher concentrations than at the monitoring location,” according to the CDC.

These details are not contained in the DHS summary. When Racine County Eye asked about the omission, DHS officials downplayed the discrepancy.

“While there is some potential for slightly higher air concentrations at other nearby locations, the differences would be likely be very small and highly unlikely to exceed annual health-based standards or routinely exceed 24-hour standards,” Miller said.  

The CDC report did not address the increased amount of coal being stored outside between We Energies Elm Road Generating Station and the Oak Creek Power Plant, which are adjacent to one another.

The Department of Natural Resources approved We Energies’ request to double the size of its coal pile storage capacity in 2015, which allows the utility to double the size of the coal pile stored outside from 720,000 tons to 1.5 million tons by the end of 2017.

Despite the increased amount of coal being stored outside, Manthey said the utility does not anticipate installing more air monitoring stations.

“As you recall we voluntarily installed the air monitoring station. We do not plan to install any other stations at this time, nor have we been required to do so by environmental or health agencies,” he wrote in an email.

Bill Pringle, a former Caledonia resident who lived on Middle Road just south of the plant and east of Douglas Avenue, said he wasn’t surprised by DHS’s letter.

“It’s what I expected,” he said. “My dealings with DNR and DHS is that they stick up for We Energies. They always have an excuse for them. I know the truth about what’s in the air. And also in dealing with the politicians, it seems that they have their feet in a lot of doors.”

Pringle said he isn’t satisfied and would like to see more air monitoring done, but not by We Energies or the DNR.

“I would like that more than anything,” he said. “I want to see the work done by an independent company, not something We Energies regulates or the DNR regulates… just an unbiased testing company.”

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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.