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Coal dust
Greg Millard, who lives just north of the Oak Creek Power Plant, noticed black soot covering a nearby play area.

Residents living on the north side of the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant woke up to coal dust covering their cars, homes, and playground equipment last week.

Dust samples taken by the Environmental Accountability Group (EAG) tested by Aspen Consulting Inc., showed that one of the samples tested positive for the presence of coal dust. Coal, coal dust and fly ash particles have been known to contribute to a number of health issues. Still, officials with We Energies have, in the past, refuted claims that the coal dust poses health risks.

This is the reason why a number of neighbors have voiced their concern.

“This isn’t the first time this has happened,” said Greg Millard a concerned local resident. “This is the first time they got caught. Coal dust blowing from the piles at these plants has been a problem for decades, and We Energies knows it. We want something done about it. We Energies won’t talk to us. The mayor won’t talk to us. We need help.”

Despite health community stance, We Energies denies health issues

The utility’s position on the presence of coal dust inside and outside neighbors’ homes has been a bone of contention for more than 10 years. Utility officials have power washed homes and cars, done coal testing, and gone as far as buying homes around the plant to create a buffer zone around the plant.

We Energies spokesperson Cathy Schulze said the utility is considering doing coal dust testing and air monitoring on the north side of the power plant, and they plan on discussing the issue further with the City of Oak Creek officials and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“We take both our environmental and community responsibilities very seriously. We do not believe, based on prior advice from an independent health expert, that an occurrence of this nature poses health risks to the community. Monday’s event was a rare occurrence.  However, we are reevaluating our operating procedures and will be making modifications to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” Schulze said.

Referring to Dr. Peter Valberg, of Gradient, Schulze told the Racine County Eye that We Energies’ attorneys have him on retainer.

Racine County Eye learned that of the 34 families (some have multiple family members) that have health issues, 30 people in the group either have or died of cancer. Over 20 people reported having asthma and a handful of people have atrial fibrillation, chronic sinusitis, bronchitis, COPD, pneumonia, Crohn’s Disease, brain aneurysms, stomach and heart issues. All of those diseases are associated with coal dust exposure, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Read more: We Energies to knock down more homes and Neighbors negotiating with We Energies over health concerns.

Dust issues date back to 2005

This isn’t the first time neighbors living around the plant have complained about dust, health problems, noise, and water quality issues. Since 2005, We Energies has tested homes for the presence of coal dust inside and outside their homes. Of those tested, 19 of the 26 tested positive in 2015 and 9 of the 33 tested positive in 2005, according to officials with We Energies.

Residents also raised concerns in 2015 when the utility sought to double the size of the coal pile on the property, which included storing 420,000 tons of coal on the Oak Creek Power Plant site and 330,000 tons of coal on the Elm Road Generation Station site. Those two sites are adjacent to one another.

The permit required We Energies to use a crusting agent on the south coal pile only, but not the north coal pile located more towards the center of the property. The use of the crusting agent on the south pile was only required to be used once the north pile was constructed and active. That’s because the pile on the south side of the property is used for “long-term storage and the north pile for more short-term storage of coal,” according to a memorandum from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“A dust suppression system is in place for the active coal piles,” Schulze said. “However, because it is an active coal pile, crusting agents are not used. Crusting agents are used on inactive storage piles.”

Environmental group questions air monitoring around the plant

We Energies has monitored the air quality around the north side of the plant from 2007 through 2014, and on the south side of the plant from January 2016 to present.

In January 2017, the Clean Power Coalition sent a letter asking We Energies for additional air quality monitoring equipment to be put on the north side of the plant, in the vicinity of this neighborhood.

Read more: CPP Letter.

Officials with the Clean Power Coalition wrote a letter to We Energies on Jan. 24 asking them to:

  • Install an air monitor on the north side of the plant.
  • Questioned the location of the air monitor on the south side.
  • Asked that it report the results to the State of Wisconsin PM 2.5 Monitoring and Reporting Network.
  • Report the data being collected on the south side of the plant to residents in real time and not on a monthly bases.

In a letter dated Feb. 5, We Energies president Kevin Fletcher denied the request, saying that it was not necessary.

“I believe we have a responsibility to act as a good neighbor in the communities in which we operate,” Fletcher wrote. “I believe we have met this responsibility for the communities surrounding our Oak Creek facility.

Read more: We Energies letter.

But after the coal dust was found last week on the north side of the power plant, the utility has changed its stance on installing an air monitor around the plant.

“We are considering this suggestion and will discuss with the City and the WDNR,” Schulze said.

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.