After learning that 19 out of 26 homes tested positive for the presence of coal-like particles, We Energies officials maintain that the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant operation is not causing area neighbors to get sick.

Despite what We Energies is saying about the test results publicly, lawyers representing the neighbors and We Energies are now scheduling times for a mediation process to begin, said Bill Pringle, who used to live near the coal plant.

“I don’t know how close we are to scheduling the mediation,” Pringle said. “But We Energies’ lawyers have asked us to give them the names of four to five mediators.”

Test results show coal present

Of the 19 homes that came back positive for the presence of coal dust, varying levels of coal dust were found: trace levels, which means that coal-like particles were found in less than 1 percent of the sample; minor levels, which are greater than 1 percent and less than 20 percent; and major levels, which is when levels measure 20 percent or more.

We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey downplayed the findings saying, “138 similar concentrations of material other than coal – plant tissue, paper and textile fibers, limestone, pollen, dandruff/skin cells, sawdust, wood/plant char, etc.,” were also found in the samples.

“The test results support our belief that the power plant operations are not causing health problems for the residents,” Manthey said.

Pringle is not surprised by the results, but he’s frustrated with We Energies responses over the years.

“It’s irritating how We Energies has continued to play this off for the past two years… like it’s not a big deal,” he said. “At first they said, there’s no coal and then it was… I was the only one. Then a year later, it’s: we’ve tested homes for the past 10 years and of the 33 that were tested during that time, nine came back positive.”

Coal, coal dust and fly ash have been known to contribute to a number of diseases including heart disease, certain types of cancers, respiratory diseases, and strokes. While We Energies maintains that it operates within the EPA’s guidelines, the amount of particulate matter emitted from the plant was at its highest level in 2014, according to data the utility provided to the DNR.

The homes that tested positive were located within a two-mile radius of the plant. Most of the homes that tested negative were located more than two miles away from the plant, but at least one was less than a half mile away from the plant.

Particle sizes and amounts matter

Two of the tests had an average particle size of less than 10 microns and were at trace level amounts with an average particle size of 8 microns while the other test results found many of the average particle sizes were over 100 microns, Manthey said.

But test results from Frank Michna’s home on Michna Road showed that one sample came back having major amounts, not trace level amounts, of sub-bituminous coal dust with an average size of eight microns.

Dr. Peter Valberg is an expert on human health risk assessment, inhalation toxicology, and modeling of human exposure to environmental chemicals with 30 years of experience both on the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health. He told We Energies that the coal dust particles found in the homes are too large to “pose any concern to public health.”

However, Pringle criticized Manthey’s characterization of the test results saying that the emphasis has been on the average size of the particles found in the home and not actual particle sizes found in the samples,. Manthey said that “it would not be practical to measure each particle in any given sample.”

Still, an air monitoring station set up within a mile of the plant in mid-January shows that fine particles, those that are 2.5 microns or less, are present — at least in low levels — in the air. While the levels have not exceeded the EPA’s 24-hour average national air quality standard, the EPA concluded that fine particle pollution does pose health threats and may cause cancer.

Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of National Policy for the American Lung Association, said the health impact of being exposed to even low levels of fine and ultra-fine particulate matter over a period of time and short-term spikes is well documented.

Those particles can also travel great distances. Fine particles, which are 2.5 microns to 1 micron can travel up to 10s of km, and ultra-fine particles, which are less than 1 micron, can travel up to 100s of km, according to the EPA. Power plants — while they’ve made great strides in reducing a number of emissions issues — are still a major source for particulate matter.

“Near plant monitoring is not enough,” she said. “You have to also look at this on an annual basis.”

In 2015, We Energies initially reported to the DNR that its total emissions for the smaller particulate matter (PM10) increased from 150 tons in 2013 to 441 tons in 2014. However, Manthey said that the 2014 number was overstated and that utility officials are working with the DNR to revise the numbers. DNR officials confirmed that they are working with We Energies to correct the problem.

Manthey estimates that the amount of PM10 for 2014 is between 280 and 290 tons.

Coal-ash exposure possible connection to cancer case

Meanwhile, Susan Hupp, one of the We Energies neighbors who has multiple myeloma, lives about a quarter of a mile from the air monitoring station, which is located on Seven Mile Road.

Her cancer doctor told her in February that there may be a link between her illness and living near the We Energies plant, especially since Hupp’s sister-in law and two brothers-in law also died of cancer. They all lived in the same house on Douglas Avenue, about a mile away from the coal plant.

“It appears that family members living in the home developed myeloma, lymphoma, and, given Susan’s young age and her parents lack of risk factors for the development of multiple myeloma, it is very possible that environmental exposure to coal-ash predisposed her to developing myeloma,” the doctor wrote in a Feb. 4 report.

She did not want to be named.

We Energies officials do not agree with the doctor’s assessment, Manthey said.

“We do not see any basis to link our facilities with health concerns of the residents – including the Hupps,” Manthey said. “The average particle sizes in the samples from the Hupp residence ranged from 17-500 microns – well outside of the size that would be considered a concern for human health.”

Those 20 neighbors have now retained Miner, Barnhill & Galland P.C., a Madison-based firm that is part of a larger Chicago-based firm specializing in litigating national cases, to start the mediation process with We Energies. Those neighbors claim the power plant is making them sick, contaminating some wells in the area, and negatively impacting their home values, Pringle said.

“As part of the argument we’re making, we’re asking… is there coal in those houses and is there a connection between the coal and people’s health… based on several medical expert’s opinions that have seen the test results, they believe that’s what we have here,” Pringle said.

**Editor’s Note: The number of homes that tested positive for coal dust is 19 instead of the 20 we noted. We have corrected the information and apologize for the error.

Love what we do?

In addition to our education features, we’ll be kicking off a series of stories highlighting how parents, students, and educators are adapting to the impact of COVID-19 on education. If this is important to you, please consider donating to our education reporting fund. https://business.facebook.com/donate/1846323118855149/3262802717172659/

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.