After being frustrated with the lack of action from several state agencies, a group of people living around the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant want the company to look into their health issues, and they’re asking the Joint Board of Health to help.
About 15 people expressed their concerns to the Joint Board of Health Thursday. The Central Racine County Health Department serves the Caledonia, Mount Pleasant, Sturtevant and North Bay communities, and the Joint Board of Health advises the department.
Members of the Joint Board of Health told the group that while some of their issues around contaminated water wells, noise pollution and air pollution were not under their jurisdiction, they could help advocate on their behalf by passing along those complaints to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Some neighbors are working with We Energies to have their homes tested by a third-party, and We Energies’ spokesman Brian Manthey said earlier this month that the utility recently learned about these health issues and they are investigating them.
Air pollution contributes to some health issues
Coal dust and fly ash, a byproduct of coal, has been associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, strokes, congestive heart failure, malignant neoplasms, fatal arrhythmia, asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, certain types of cancer, acid reflux, premature births and low birth weight babies, according to Alan H. Lockwood, a professor of neurology at the University of Buffalo.
“There’s also beginning to be some evidence that conditions of Alzheimer’s disease, and Type 2 Diabetes may be linked in some way to air pollution,” Lockwood said.
We Energies told Racine County Eye earlier this month that of the 33 homes they tested in the last decade, nine were found to have coal dust. But DNR officials didn’t know about the most recent complaints from 2014 and 2015, according to a DNR memo dated Aug. 24.
And, for the past two years, the DNR hasn’t received any complaints from residents about coal dust “on off-plant property,” but neighbors said they have complained many times to We Energies.
We Energies’ spokesperson Brian Manthey said the company is trying to address neighbors’ concerns by offering to pressure wash homes, buy drinking water for people who have contaminated wells, and purchasing property from homeowners who have put their homes on the market.
Read more about the health risks and find out background on the We Energies plant.
The group of residents raised questions about air pollution and how the community monitors the air quality since many of them have health issues The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has an air monitoring station at the Payne & Dolan quarry, but it only monitors ozone and not particulate matter. Coal plants are known to produce particulate matter, which causes air pollution, according the DNR.
Maureen Wolf, 7617 Michna Rd., told the board that We Energies employees have been out to her house twice to test her home and found coal dust on her property. Wolf’s family lives about a mile away from the power plant, and several members have bronchitis, nose polyps, and asthma issues.
“We feel that we’re being poisoned basically by We Energies and now they are wanting to double the size of their coal piles and we have videotape of coal dust blowing off the trains, off the mounds — which they can’t even contain during high winds, or even on just a breezy day,” Wolf said.
Coal dust is known to contain heavy metals including: nickel, tin, cadmium, mercury, antimony, and arsenic, as well as radio isotopes of thorium and strontium. But some of those metals are also known to occur naturally.
“That’s why we are here, because no one is listening to us,” Wolff said.
Dr. Mark Decheck, a family medicine doctor from Wheaton Franciscan – All Saints and chair for the Joint Board of Health, told the group he wasn’t aware of the issues around the coal piles.
“As a citizen, I am shocked that the coal isn’t contained in the biggest building I’ve ever seen,” Decheck said.
Neighbors ask health department for help
Frank Michna, 7755 Michna Rd., told the Joint Board of Health that diesel trains, coal dust blowing on their houses, and contaminated wells are making them sick.
“We all live on the northeast side of Caledonia,” he said. “We are developing health problems and we feel it’s because of the power plant. You’re the health department and we’d like you to look into it.”
Michna explained that he’s also concerned about his children and grandchildren.
“I have a daughter who has Crohn’s Disease and my nephew, his daughter has cancer, and his son has an upper respiratory issue. Our kids are suffering from this and we all live near the tracks. And if you read, you’ll find out that they are related to the poisoning from coal,” Frank said. “We also worry about the girls having trouble with fertility problems and things like that. So it’s not just us, it’s the next generation and the generation after that.”
“But where is the EPA and the DNR?” asked Charlie Michna. “We need someone to start unraveling this. I would think you would be the place to start, you are the health department. If you’re not, then who do I go to?”
Charlie said he doesn’t see We Energies monitoring the dust coming off the coal piles or the trains, or the noise pollution from the trains. He has asthma and is on an inhaler. He also has nose polyps.
“Come on over by me, stay overnight sometime. I invite anyone over to stay the week with me. I didn’t have them (We Energies) power wash my porch this year. I left everything out there so you could come over and video that. I can go on the ground and go (whooshing sound) and watch this dust blow all over the place,” he said.
Renee Michna, 7710 Michna Rd., disputes the DNR’s statement that no one has contacted them.
“Nobody writes anything down, and we’ve complained to WE Energies,” she said. “Tthey’ve known about us for years, and they ignore us. They have heard from all of these people and the neighbors and that’s why they bought out all of that land because they heard complaints from all of those people. They want to get rid of all of us because we have health issues.”
Renee has PVCs, atrial fibrillation, asthma, and bronchitis.
“You’ve got to step up and do something about this, we need your help,” she said.
We Energies has offered to buy many of the homes on Michna Road. But Renee Michna said they won’t talk to the Michna family unless all of them sell their properties and not all of them want to because the family homesteaded the land in the 1850s.
The health department offers to advocate
The health department can’t help the issues around air pollution and water contamination, but the department could help the group by writing letters to DHS and to the Public Service Commission, Decheck said.
“We’ll see what we can do to get some answers,” he said. “If I have your names and addresses I can update you on what we find and I think it might be appropriate to come back next quarter and see what if anything has been done. And see what — if anything — else we can do try to help your situation.”
Margaret Gesner, health officer for the Central Racine County Health Department, explained that the water contamination and air pollution issues would not be within her department’s purview, but their health concerns would fall under their jurisdiction. Still, the department doesn’t have the resources to study the issue.
She asked the group to put their concerns in a letter and email it to her so that she could collect them and send them to the state health department because they have registries.
“I think it would be helpful to have your concerns and what you are looking for in written form,” Gesner said.
Decheck also said the Central Racine County Health Department would also be able to send a letter to the department advocating on their behalf.
To file a complaint, email Margaret Gesner, health officer for the Central Racine County Health Department, at MGesner@crchd.com.
Live around the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant and have health concerns? Add your story to our map.
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/