On March 4, a thick layer of coal dust blanketed Oak Creek homes, cars, and a neighborhood playground.
On April 10 a letter went out from Thomas Metcalfe, Executive Vice President for We Energies, identifying “long-term strategies” to deal with the problem, including “Planting more trees for screening” and “Constructing a wind barrier either partially or fully around the coal piles.” Trees? Really? It is difficult to imagine how a row of saplings could shield residents from the mountain of coal next door.
Read more: What’s in the air around the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant.
And the “wind barrier”—described as “a large screen that could be as tall as 100 feet”—wouldn’t actually block particulates from escaping. It would simply reduce wind speeds in the area around the pile. A 2017 study on coal dust from the National Bureau for Economic Research explains that coal piles cause fine particulate pollution in multiple ways (handling, processing, and pulverization), including the emission of volatile gases. The study concludes that these fine particulates, some 2.5 microns or smaller, can travel as far as 25 miles, an area that encompasses much of Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha.
Furthermore, Mr. Metcalfe avoided addressing the effects of coal dust blowing off the coal trains on the families living anywhere near the tracks along the route from Wyoming to Oak Creek. These trains typically consist of around 115 cars, uncovered (because coal is combustible), and the jostling that occurs can cause each car to lose between 500 and 2,000 pounds of coal along the way, according to an internal company study by BNSF Railway. Even when mitigation measures are in place, ThinkProgress estimates that between 75 and 300 pounds of coal dust escape each car. That’s a massive amount of dust inundating numerous Wisconsin communities, including Kenosha and Racine.
Coal dust isn’t the only toxic aspect of coal energy production. Coal ash (burned residue) is carcinogenic, containing heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury among its contaminants. In the May/June issue of SIERRA, Sierra Club Director Michael Brune tells us, “Even among dirty fuels, coal causes the most obvious harm to the environment and to human health, from mercury poisoning to black lung disease. Just the soot from coal-fired power plants is responsible for an estimated 13,000 premature deaths annually in the United States.” That’s the equivalent of four 9/11 attacks every year, EVERY year.
There is really only one solution: transitioning to clean and renewable energy with all due speed. Fossil fuel energy comes at the price of health. People suffer, particularly children and the elderly. Health is undermined, lives are shortened. The fossil fuel industry has known this for decades. Clean, renewable energy is inevitable. These energy sources—solar and wind—ensure strong, stable jobs, substantial profit, and healthier families. And the rest of the world (including parts of America) is moving in this direction. China, our greatest economic competitor, now leads the world in solar panel production.
Meanwhile, the residents of Oak Creek continue to suffer the greatest exposure to coal dust–outside and inside their homes. There is no escape for them. Should everyone wear a respirator, even indoors, even during sleep? We inhale about ten times every minute. night and day. That’s 600 breaths every hour, 14,400 every day. Should their health just be written off as “collateral damage?” The cost of doing business?
At the annual shareholders meeting, CEO Gale Klappa stated that “progress is our most important product.” Prove it, Mr. Klappa. Eliminate coal from your fuel mix and begin the transition to renewable energy. That is if you value our health more than your short-term profits.
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