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Over the years, a number of neighbors have lived with coal dust covering their homes. This swab came from a home that We Energies bought purchased as part of a mediated settlement. The homeowners suffered from several illnesses associated with living near a power plant.

A few days ago, Alliant Energy and WEC Energy Group announced new plans to reduce “carbon emissions by 80% from 2005 levels by 2050.” At first glance, it might give the impression that both utilities had suddenly seen the light and were moving swiftly to clean energy production. More than a cursory look, however, makes it clear that this is not the case.

What does reducing “carbon emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050″ really mean? For one thing, it means–if the plan follows through–that in 32 years there will be less coal being burned, but possibly still a significant amount where health is concerned.

WEC Energy Group has stated they have no near-term plans to retire the coal plants in Oak Creek, and they do not make a commitment to go coal-free as part of this plan. Is that what’s awaiting our great-grandchildren? And all during those 32 years the coal-related health problems will continue, even if there is minimal reduction every year. Are people supposed to hold their breath until 2050? And then start taking smaller breaths to compensate for the smaller amount of coal dust still being generated and dispersed throughout southeastern Wisconsin? And the same goes for all those families living in the vicinity of the many coal trains that rumble through, each approximately 115-125 cars long?

Consider: each car loses an average of 300 to 500 pounds to coal dust due to jostling during its journey from Wyoming to Oak Creek. Coal dust and coal ash are toxic, carcinogenic. Their harmful effects are most keenly felt by children and the elderly. Asthma, bronchitis, Black Lung disease, COPD and cancer are linked to the dust and ash (which contains arsenic, lead, and mercury). Coal dust particles, some as fine as 2.5 microns, can travel as far as 25 miles, which is to say, from Milwaukee to Kenosha. All along this “urban corridor” families are exposed–every day and every night (since coal dust gets into their homes)–and we are supposed to continue inhaling toxins until Alliant and WEC deem it financially feasible and/or necessary to make the heralded transition?

WEC Energy Group also plans to add more than 400 megawatts of natural gas generation in the next four years. Increasing the amount of gas generated energy is a problem in its own right. Fracking destabilizes the substructure, blasting rock formations loose and bringing on earthquakes, a problem especially prevalent in Oklahoma.  The ingredients in the liquid used is kept secret, ostensibly to protect against competitors making use of the information, but really because of the chemical toxins which poison the groundwater.

I’ve seen more than one documentary where a rural resident living near a fracking site draws a bucket of water from his well and sets it on fire.  And let’s not forget that, while gas burns cleaner than coal, fracking it unleashes substantial quantities of methane, a gas which is dramatically more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of  global warming.

Meanwhile, 2050 remains a long ways off. The technology for renewable energy is here today.  So the delay in getting off coal and gas altogether is about money, and only money–as opposed to our health. How can these decision makers translate human lives into annual profit? This is what cost benefit analysis does. So what’s missing from these calculations? Human connection. Responsibility. Regard for life. Alliant and WEC claim they want to be “good neighbors.” Is this how “good neighbors” behave?

There is only one solution–as common sensible as it is inescapable–and that is to transition to clean, renewable energy as quickly as is physically possible. And yes, it will pay off soon enough in reduced operating costs and sustainable profits and jobs. More importantly, it will pay off in healthier lives and a healthier planet. But, if that’s not enough incentive, consider how many potential investors–environmentally conscious all–might be drawn to companies that behaved like “good neighbors.” There are many organizations–with many members–working to protect and save our increasingly endangered world. Think about it.

Carl Lindner,
Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin