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We Energies has bought 30 homes and will likely buy more properties for its expansion of a buffer zone around the Oak Creek Power Plant.

The Caledonia Village Board, state Legislators, and We Energies officials need to demonstrate better leadership and communication on the issue of its impact on nearby neighbors’ health and on their property values.

We Energies has told the Racine County Eye repeatedly that it does not directly approach neighbors to buy their homes and that there is no link between the operations of the plant and their health issues. Yet when people want to sell around the power plant, We Energies buys the properties where coal dust has been found and wells are listed as contaminated on their sellers’ condition reports

Let us be clear, the utility is doing the right thing for these neighbors by buying up these homes and knocking them down. But there is a larger health issue here and state and village officials need to protect the property values of those residents continuing to live near the plant.

With that said, science — not industry rhetoric — should prevail in these conversations and we don’t see that happening at the local or state level as the power plant self-reports data near the power plant that is spotty at best. Also, We Energies’ policy around buying homes piecemeal around the power plant while denying any connection between coal dust and water contamination and the neighbors’ health issues builds a false sense of trust in the community that is an unacceptable practice. 

Here’s what we know:

Scientists hired by We Energies and a mediation group have revealed that 19 of 26 homes tested positive for varying amounts of coal dust. We Energies is now buying those homes and knocking them down for well above the assessed value.  They are also requiring homeowners to sign a notice not to sue for health issues, thus preventing those health issues from ever being linked to the power plant.

This alone should be cause for concern. But Village officials and state legislators for years have turned a blind eye to this issue. How many more homes need to be knocked down before the elephant in the northeast corner of the village gets addressed?

And the public has a right to know those issues. The reason being: 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.”

Numerous local doctors have also written letters to We Energies indicating that a number of patients’ health issues could be associated with the power plant.

CDC and DHS discrepancies

Another issue is that the Department of Health Services conducted a year-long investigation, but they only used part of air monitoring data collected by We Energies. The report also failed to look at potential water contamination.

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 DHS 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, but the data was collected by We Energies itself. 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.

There are hundreds of homes in that area. Yet, the DNR has no air monitoring stations that measure particulate matter around the plant. 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 likely be very small and highly unlikely to exceed annual health-based standards or routinely exceed 24-hour standards,” Miller said.

What should be the next step

In the interest of transparency, we strongly encourage We Energies to make those coal tests public as some of these homes are more than a mile away from the power plant. The Caledonia Village Board and state Legislators also need to educate themselves on the impact of coal dust on human health from credible health professionals, not experts hired by the utility. And the DNR needs to put in air monitoring stations around the plant.

The notion that there is no link whatsoever between coal dust being found inside these homes and the operation of the largest power plant in the state is preposterous. The problem is: We don’t really know and that is not acceptable.

We would also encourage the Department of Health Services to get a list of all of the properties purchased from We Energies around the power plant over the last 20 years and talk to those folks about their health issues. This information is vital to understanding the full impact of the plant on their health.

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.