“Clean coal” is a phrase we hear again and again. It’s often employed by those in the fossil fuel industry to allay fears that their business is hazardous. The facts say otherwise. The scientific community says otherwise. From mining coal to transporting it to burning it to disposing of its waste, coal is part of a dirty business. And a dangerous one. When air and water are polluted, people sicken, suffer, and die. Only those who make large sums of money from burning fossil fuels cling to this falsehood and continue to spread it.

“Clean coal” is a contradiction in terms, like “vegetarian cannibal” or “healthy cancer.” There’s no such thing as “a little toxic.” Ask anyone who has watched a loved one die from prolonged exposure to dirty air or filthy water. Thousands of miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania have died–slowly–of “black lung” disease from breathing coal dust. And coal ash–the residue of burned coal–was buried or dumped outright by the truckload into nearby rivers and streams. Not surprisingly, chemicals and elements from coal ash began turning up in people’s drinking water. Coal ash poses the same dangers everywhere.

The hazards of exposure to coal ash have been dramatically demonstrated in a documentary called “Cheshire, Ohio.” Filmed over a ten year period by Eve Morgenstern, it was shown recently at River Bend Nature Center in Racine. Well over 100 people watched in stunned silence as residents told how American Electric Power built one of the largest plants in the world next to their small river town, and then how respiratory illnesses and a variety of cancers began to afflict many people who had no history of these problems. In 2002 American Electric paid twenty million dollars to buy Cheshire, then bulldozed homes, the school, and the church. Soon afterward, seventy-seven workers filed a lawsuit for exposure to toxic coal dust.

Coal ash and coal dust pose the same problems here. People who live closest to the Oak Creek and Elm Road plants have had their property bought and bulldozed. They were offered additional money if they agreed not to sue. These two plants together constitute the largest coal-burning operation in Wisconsin, and so the actual “vicinity” affected includes Oak Creek, South Milwaukee, Caledonia, Racine, and Kenosha. The people who live near the plants tell stories. Their stories resonate with those told by the people of Cheshire, Ohio. Or where Cheshire once stood.

As customers of WE Energies, we deserve a utility that will adopt energy technology in the interests of public health and safety as well as cost efficiency. Sunlight is clean. And free. Wind is clean. And free. And neither will run out, ensuring jobs as long as the sun shines and the wind blows.The true cost of burning coal comes in the toxins and carcinogens released. People who live here should not have to watch their children suffer from asthma, bronchitis or other respiratory illnesses. They should not have to see their parents struggle with COPD or dread its arrival in their own later years.

We Energies can certainly choose to provide energy from clean sources and processes that don’t poison the air, water, and soil. Or it can continue to endanger the well being of all who live in this corner of Wisconsin–and all for the sake of short-term profits. When money trumps the health of families and workers, major changes must be made. The cost of dirty fuel energy is health, plain and simple. No child, parent, friend or neighbor should ever be “collateral damage.” That price must not be paid any longer.

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