A local doctor is refuting claims made by We Energies’ officials that the coal plant isn’t contributing to the illnesses of some of its neighbors.

Dr. Michael Ganz, an asthma/allergy specialist who owns a private practice in Mount Pleasant, says that after seeing 16 people that live around the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant he believes their health is being “adversely affected” by living near the coal plant.

“I have found that there is significant evidence of the presence of coal particulate matter in their homes, and in a number of these patients that their health has been adversely affected as a result of this exposure, while living there, particularly in regards to the frequency and severity of asthma exacerbations and COPD exacerbations, along with irritant/allergen exposure resulting in symptoms of nonspecific rhinitis, sinusitis, and symptoms of chronic bronchitis,” he said.

Utility Put On Notice About Neighbors’ Health Concerns

About 24 property owners living near the coal plan collectively made the company aware of health issues they believe are being exacerbated by living next to the coal plant. In response, We Energies has started investigating these claims.The utility and the neighbors each paid two, third-party firms to test neighbors’ homes for the presence of coal dust and fly ash. And while not all test results have come in, 11 homes have come back positive for the presence of coal dust in varying amounts and particle sizes. Ten of the homes tested have not had the tests come back from the lab.

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 the 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.

Click here to understand the health impact of these chemicals.

However, Ganz stopped short of saying that the coal plant caused the neighbors’ illnesses, explaining instead that if a person had asthma prior to living near the coal plant, moving near a coal plant with similar particulate emissions levels may not have caused the person to have asthma, but their symptoms would be worse if they lived near a coal plant.

The Racine County Eye obtained a memo from Ganz in which he wrote:

“Particulate matter greater than 10 microns (SPM), or coarse particles, would also be a marker for fine and ultra-fine particle presence in various cases (as they would invariably be broken down and degraded); fine and ultra-fine particles are known to be associated with more severe and significant respiratory and cardiovascular disease with regard to coal dust.

“There is also a constant source of diesel fumes present from the train cars carrying the coal in open cars; in addition to soot and various chemicals.  Chemical or diesel fume exposure was not measured.”

We Energies: Plant Isn’t Causing Health Problems

We Energies spokesperson Brian Manthey downplayed the test results by saying that definitive conclusions could not be reached until the company had all of the results back.

Manthey said that the initial results still support the utility’s belief that the power plant is not causing health problems for the residents as bug parts, pollen, plant tissue, and limestone were also found in the samples.

“Given the other non-coal particulate matter seen in the tested samples, those could easily explain the conditions experienced by the residents,” Manthey said.

Of the people Ganz treated, all of them had allergy tests and Ganz maintains the position that the coal dust coming from the plant is contributing to their symptoms more so than the other non-coal particulate matter.

Still, We Energies officials believe the particles found in the neighbors’ homes are too big to cause the neighbors’ health problems and point to an expert who backed up their position.

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.”

Neighbor Somewhat Surprised At Results

Tim Hupp, who lives at 7832 Douglas Ave., had five of five samples come back positive for the presence of coal dust. Hupp has COPD and has been hospitalized for pneumonia 16 times since 2008. While he used to smoke, Ganz said living just a mile away from a coal plant likely exacerbated his symptoms.

“I knew we had coal dust, but I didn’t know it was this bad,” Hupp said. “No wonder why I’m getting pneumonia all of the time.”

Ganz put Hupp on oxygen.

While the average sizes of the particles found in Hupp’s home were not considered respirable — meaning they couldn’t be inhaled — Ganz said those larger particles would also be a marker for the presence of smaller particles.

“It (the particulate matter) certainly has a contributory role,” Ganz said. “You have a known source of particulate matter, they’ve been power washing these houses for years and now they’ve found actual coal dust in these homes. I don’t see how a clinician could say that it’s not a possibility to affect someone’s health.”

While Manthey and Valberg don’t agree with Ganz, the American Lung Association’s position is that no matter what the size, particles can harm your health.

“Breathing high levels of particle pollution day in and day out also can be deadly, as landmark studies in the 1990s conclusively showed, and other studies confirmed. Chronic exposure to particle pollution can shorten life by one to three years,” according to the American Lung Association.

These (Particulates) Matter

But the plant has operated and continues to operate within the EPA’s guidelines for the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter, Manthey said.

The utility monitored the air around the plant through two, off-site air monitoring stations in Oak Creek until it lobbied the City of Oak Creek to remove the stations because it had consistently fell within the EPA’s standards for particulates. In May 2006, the PM10 levels were above 50 percent of the EPA’s air-quality standard, but by May 2013 the levels were at 30 percent of the standard even after the utility doubled its coal production.

Both off-site monitoring stations were removed in Dec. 2013, but the utility still reports emissions data to the DNR and the EPA.

Recent data reported to the DNR indicates the amount of coal dust produced by the coal plant is at the highest level in 10 years.

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, but Daniel Schramm, air management engineer for the DNR, did not believe the reported emissions would decrease that much.

“We agree with the company that this is not correct and we are working with them to identify a more correct value,” Schramm said. “It will take a few weeks to work this out and correct the air emission inventory so I don’t know the final numbers. But it may be in the range of 5-15% of the reported emissions.”

Meeting minutes and air monitoring data from the City of Oak Creek when We Energies requested the air monitoring stations to be removed in Dec. 2013.

Caledonia Air Monitoring Station Up

However, We Energies just installed an air monitoring station in Caledonia about a mile away from the plant on 7 Mile Road near the railroad tracks. Manthey said residents will soon have the ability to check area particulate matter levels through a dedicated website.

Ganz said the heavier particles likely would be found closer to the combustion source and he pointed to how pollen grains, which range from 0.5–4.5 microns, can travel 10s of miles; particles that can be dispersed in the air the further away from the source.

“I’d like to see air monitoring stations placed at one mile, three miles and five miles away,” he said.

 

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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.