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While the homes tested positive for the presence of coal-like particles, the amount found and the sizes of the coal particles varied.
Brian Manthey, spokesperson for We Energies, says the initial findings show the coal particles — at eight micrometers or larger — “are not causing health problems for the residents.” The U.S. EPA indicates that any particles less than 10 micrometers “pose the greatest problems,” since they can get into the lungs and some may get into the bloodstream.
Almost 30 families brought their concerns to We Energies about the impact of living next to the Oak Creek Power Plant, which they say has had an impact on their health, drinking water, and property values over the years, said the group’s attorney Maxwell Livingston. Test results from six of the 24 homes — which included some of the homes closest to the power plant — were recently given to the homeowners.
“While some of the tests so far have shown some coal dust, the fact is that they all show lots of particulate matter that isn’t coal – pollen, bug parts, limestone, etc. If someone has aggravated asthma from particulate matter the main culprit is likely not coal dust,” Manthey said.
We Energies: Particles Too Large To Cause Health Problems
The remaining tests have not been completed by the two third-party firms hired by We Energies and the group making the claims. Manthey cautioned that because these are only partial results, a definitive conclusion cannot be reached until all 24 homes could be tested.
“We believe these initial results support our belief that the power plant operations are not causing health problems for the residents,” he wrote in a prepared statement.
Dr. Peter Valberg, 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, told We Energies that the coal dust particles found in the homes are too large to “pose any concern to public health.”
“Coal dust particles within certain size ranges – as seen here, where they are equal to or greater than 8 micrometers (8 μm) in diameter — are considered to be coarse-mode particles, rather than fine particles (which are particles less than 2.5 μm diameter). The majority of coarse-mode particles will either not be inhaled, or if inhaled, will be mostly deposited in the nose, mouth or throat. Coarse-mode particles are unlikely to travel deep into the lungs,” Valberg told We Energies.
We Energies’ Oak Creek Power Plant produced 11.27 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2014, a 73 percent increase compared to 2012 after it expanded the capacity on the site by 89 percent by adding two generating units.
Click here to see what’s coming out of the stacks.
Health Issues Related To Coal Dust
However, exposure to large particles of particulate does cause and contributes to health problems, acording to the National Institute of Health:
“Short-term exposure to large particles of particulate matter can aggravate respiratory conditions such as asthma. It can also cause increased coughing, wheezing, respiratory irritation, and painful breathing. Particulate matter is especially harmful to people with lung diseases such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and emphysema. Other people who are sensitive to particulate matter exposure are children, the elderly, and people with heart disease.”
A study released earlier this month also highlighted the connection between people being exposed to emissions from coal-fired power plants over time is “significantly more harmful to the heart than other forms of carbon pollution,” according to a story by the Washington Post.
“The risk of death from heart disease, including heart attacks, was five times as high for people who breathed pollution from coal emissions over 20 years than for those who were exposed to other types of air pollution, according to the study’s findings. The burning of coal releases fine particles with a potent mix of toxins, including arsenic and selenium,” the story reads.
We Energies Neighbors Not Surprised
A number of people living around the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant have complained about having asthma, COPD, pneumonia, heart problems, cancer and chronic bronchitis. An epidemiological study has not been done in the area to substantively link presence of coal dust in the area directly to illnesses in the area and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has no immediate plans to do one.
Former Caledonia resident Bill Pringle, a spokesperson for the group levying the claims against We Energies, said the test results did not surprise him. He lived about two miles from the coal plant until 2014 after he moved because his children, he and his wife had asthma. Pringle sold his home in October of 2014 and moved to Mount Pleasant. Since then he and his family’s asthma symptoms have improved.
However, Pringle declined to discuss the test results in detail.
“A handful of test results have come in and confirmed that the pollutants from the coal pile are making their way into people’s homes around the power plant,” Pringle said.
The final results of the tests were not made available to the Racine County Eye and homeowners were not able to comment on the test results, but did respond to We Energies statement.
“They have no conscious for health or our natural resources,” said Renee Michna, one of the homeowners whose homes tested positive for coal-like particles and has asthma.
Editor’s note: This version of the story corrects that the EPA standard cited relates to any particulate matter and that We Energies assessment on the health impact of particulate matter is not in conflict with the EPAs regulatory standard. Racine County Eye regrets the error.