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By Carl Lindner

Two years ago, almost to the day, a dozen or so members of the Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin gathered in Ziegler Park, across from We Energies’ headquarters. They were there to protest the pollution and health hazards caused by the two large coal-burning plants in Oak Creek. 

Since 2017 the Coalition has held public events and published numerous Op-Eds and LTEs to educate the public about the toxic effects of coal energy. One of these events, a “listening session,” was held at the Oak Creek Public Library in the spring of 2018. About 200 residents and neighbors were there to share and listen to testimony about the blanket of coal dust they had recently discovered on their cars, houses, driveways, and the playground near the plant. Overnight, the wind had blown this layer from the mountain of exposed coal.

With great reluctance, and, at the last minute, We Energies accepted the Coalition’s invitation to attend and to speak, if they wished. They really had no choice, as their customary tactic of ignoring or downplaying such incidents (like coal train derailments), would not go unnoticed with such a large gathering in addition to local media coverage. Resident after resident spoke, describing breathing problems and high incidents of cancer in families with no prior history of the diseases.

This was especially the case with those who had moved to Oak Creek in the past ten years. The seven or eight We Energies executives were clearly discomfited, fidgeting nervously in their chairs, as they had to listen to first-hand testimony about the effects of their product on the health of the community they claimed to care deeply about. Finally, their spokesman, Thomas Metcalfe, stood up and offered a few pitiful remedies, such as planting saplings to prevent the coal dust from blowing across the neighborhoods of Oak Creek. He said not a word about the toxicity of coal, of course. 

And of course he and the other We Energies executives–and all fossil fuel company executives–were well aware that coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels. From start to finish– from coal dust to coal ash–coal is toxic. They knew full well that it was directly linked with asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, COPD, and cancer. That was why they bought out the homes of families living close to the plants. That was why they bulldozed those homes. That was why they pressured the families who were desperate to sell their homes to sign non-disclosure agreements in return for a ten thousand dollar signing bonus.

And so, two years ago, these volunteers with the Clean Power Coalition were standing outside We Energies’ headquarters with signs and songs to let Wisconsin’s Number One Polluter know that attention was still being paid, and that bottomless greed for short term profits remained unacceptable, indeed shameful, especially when the health of the community could be written off as “collateral damage.” 

And then our group marched into the lobby of We Energies to deliver a petition of more than 1700 signatures. (The Coalition now is made up of more than thirty organizations with thousands of members in Southeast Wisconsin.) They were met by a security guard who politely but firmly told them to leave. And so they did, as the guard promised to deliver the petition along with Christmas stockings, one for each of the four executives, and each containing a lump of coal. (Poetic justice, that.)

What, if anything, was the response? Six months later, We Energies applied for variances from the DNR to increase the amounts of arsenic and mercury they could discharge into Lake Michigan on a daily basis. They asked that the mercury in the effluent discharge be raised to three times the level considered hazardous to health.

As things now stand, We Energies has announced that it will retire the older of the two plants sometime in 2024. It’s very late. And very little, considering that nothing has been said about retiring the larger plant–no timeline, not a word. And, sadly, but not surprisingly, the decision was based on the increasing costliness of coal energy versus the decreasing expenses involved with clean, renewable energy. In other words, money, not human health, still remains the driver. There may not be enough stockings and enough coal to get the message across. 

And so, as Christmas comes again, still with no word about ending the use of coal in that larger plant, here are the lyrics to that song we sang two years ago. They are still very relevant. Call it a Christmas carol for We Energies, to be sung to “Jingle Bells.”

 Coal Dust Kills

Say good-bye to snow.
The Earth is getting hot.
The polar caps are melting.
This planet's all we've got.
To trash it all for money
Is mankind's greatest sin.
Mother Nature won't forgive.
Polluters cannot win.
Coal ash spills,Coal dust kills
All that's in their way--
Air and streams,
Hopes and dreams.
Fossil fuels can't stay.
Once the Earth was green,
Sky and water blue,
People drank from rivers,
The air was fresh and new.
Nature was in balance,
Everywhere life thrived.
Let it not be written
For profit, none survived.
Coal ash spills,
Coal dust kills
All that's in their way--
Air and streams,
Hopes and dreams.
Fossil fuels can't stay.

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